Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) is the new Democratic ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs. Photo: Gage Skidmore

House panel in charge of Indian legislation goes through some changes again

The legislative panel that handle Indian Country issues in the House is once again going through some changes.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona) is now serving as the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs. He was chosen for the role by fellow Democrats on Wednesday.

“Congressman Gallego has been a firm advocate for the people of Phoenix, tribal communities, and people all across the nation,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, of which the subcommittee is a part.

“He’s been a fierce leader on our committee and has proven that he’s not afraid to speak up and call Republicans out when they’re wrong,” Grijalva continued. “He will use his strong voice and experience to champion these issues for all the communities he represents.”

Democrats had to select a new leader for the subcommittee because Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the prior ranking member, has taken on a different, yet powerful, role in the chamber. She is now a member of the House Committee on Rules, where she will help determine which bills come the floor.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), addresses the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

“As an immigrant, a former 9-1-1 dispatcher and a union leader, Congresswoman Torres deeply understands the challenges facing American families,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), the Democratic leader in the House.

“Her strong values and strategic expertise, honed through a lifelong dedication of public service, will be invaluable on the Rules Committee,” Pelosi added. “Democrats look forward to the fresh perspective and firm leadership she will bring to this vital committee, as we fight to advance justice, fairness and progress for all.”

The House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs has seen a lot of change in recent years, on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. Torres had only served as the ranking member since the start of the 115th Congress in January 2017.

Her predecessor was there a bit longer. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California) served as ranking member for two years, during the entirety of the 114th Congress.

As for Republicans, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California) only became chairman of the subcommittee in January 2017. He took on that role following a rocky couple of years of controversial hearings and bills, making some in Indian Country wonder whether the GOP was trying to turn the clock back on self-determination.

But while the panel got a slow start last year, LaMalfa and Torres have shepherded a slew of bills to the full House Committee on Natural Resources and to the floor of the House. Since January 2017, for example, six tribal homelands measures have passed the chamber.

When one of those bills came up for consideration last November, LaMalfa referred to Torres as “my colleague and friend.” He said members of the subcommittee have been working in a “bipartisan nature” to advance Indian Country's interests.

“We have had such overwhelming support to move this bill along,” LaMalfa said as H.R.1491, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, passed the chamber under a suspension of the rules, meaning it was considered non-controversial.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the Republican chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs, addresses the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 14, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The cooperative spirit wasn't always present. Republicans first established the predecessor of the subcommittee during the 112th Congress to focus solely on issues facing tribes in the lower 48 states and in Alaska.

But the GOP, over the objections of Democrats, added another issue to the panel's complex agenda during the 113th Congress. It now handles “Insular” affairs, meaning the territories of American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Indigenous peoples reside in those areas, and some of Indian Country's biggest advocates have hailed from the territories. But their issues, legal status and relationship with the federal government are far different than that of tribes and Alaska Natives in the mainland.

As a result, sometimes Indian Country is overshadowed. A March 20 hearing on the budget, for example, saw a lot of time dedicated to crises in Puerto Rico and other Insular issues, often leaving representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service without as much to say.

Still, the subcommittee has become a little more balanced in terms of membership. On the Republican side, two out of seven hail from Insular areas, along with two out of six on the Democratic side. The ratio was more tilted during the 113th Congress.

At the same time, no one on the subcommittee hails from New Mexico, Oklahoma or from states in the Great Plains, where tribal populations are larger. California also continues to dominate, with three members on the Republican side.

With Torres off the subcommittee, Democrats were presented with an open seat. They chose Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-New York) to join the panel and she has already given indication of where her interests lie.

“I’m honored to join this panel which, in addition to examining federal policies related to Puerto Rico, formulates critical laws on environmental and land use issues that will determine what state we leave our planet for our children,” Velázquez said last week. She did not mention Indian issues in a press release.

With the new Democrats on board, the subcommittee's next hearing takes place on Thursday. Lawmakers are taking testimony on two bills, one which repeals a remnant of a more paternalistic era in Indian policy and another to address a land issue for an Alaska Native corporation.

The Republican members of the panel are:
• Doug LaMalfa, Chairman, California
• Don Young, Alaska
• Jeff Denham, California
• Paul Cook, California
• Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen, American Samoa
• Jack Bergman, Michigan
• Jenniffer González-Colón, Vice Chairman, Puerto Rico
Additionally, Rob Bishop of Utah, by virtue of his chairmanship of the House Committee on Natural Resources, serves ex oficio on the subcommittee.

The Democratic members are:
• Ruben Gallego, Ranking Member, Arizona
• Madeleine Z. Bordallo, Guam
• Gregorio Sablan, Northern Mariana Islands
• Darren Soto, Florida
• Colleen Hanabusa, Hawaii
• Nydia M. Velázquez, New York
As the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, serves ex oficio on the subcommittee.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing on HR 5317 and HR 211 (April 26, 2018)

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