Tribes ride fine line on Interior budget bill
Thursday, November 6, 2003

Reading the Department of Interior's $20 billion budget bill is like opening a box of chocolates. You never know what you might get.

Well that's not entirely accurate. A provision to delay a court-ordered accounting of the Indian trust was the subject of a contentious and well-publicized debate. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) called it a "midnight rider" and tried, unsuccessfully, to have it removed.

Other riders aren't as dark and benefited quite a few Indian interests. Among other things, the 169-page bill approved a land swap for the Eastern Band of Cherokees, shielded a few select tribes from the Bureau of Indian Affairs reorganization and funded the Quapaw Tribe's land consolidation program with $1 million.

There are plenty of provisions to grumble about too. Besides the language on the trust fund, lawmakers cut funds for federal recognition, expressed disapproval of "reservation shopping" and authorized higher fees for gaming tribes.

In almost every case, there was controversy guiding the effort. Some of the items weren't ever formally debated before either chamber, while others only saw action by one chamber.

The Eastern Cherokee land swap was one of them. Conservation groups hoped to stop the National Park Service from cutting a slice out of the Great Smoky National Park in North Carolina for use as a tribal school.

But they had little chance at preventing lawmakers who finalized the budget bill in private from approving the exchange, which passed the House as a stand-alone bill but never received a hearing in the Senate. The rider also circumvented the administrative process -- NPS was taking public comments on the proposed swap.

There was never a formal hearing on the Tribal Trust Reform Demonstration Project either, although tribal leaders spoke favorably about it at a House hearing and it was mentioned briefly before a Senate hearing. The provision prevents the Bush administration from imposing its trust reform initiatives on a small group of tribes who manage trust assets through compacts.

The original version of the rider could be found only in the Senate's version of the Interior bill and it would have benefited a large group of tribes. But it was scaled back by House and Senate negotiators, who were urged by Pombo to adopt the program.

The language on off-reservation casinos saw even less debate. States, non-Indian gaming interests and even other tribes lobbied the Republican leadership in the House to send a message on an increasingly controversial area of Indian gaming.

The provision doesn't actually do anything but indicates that tribes seeking to assert rights on ancestral territory or in other locations will be met with resistance. It singles out the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma for trying to open a bingo hall on ancestral land in New York and the Jena Band of Choctaws for trying to "take land into trust for gaming purposes in an area of Louisiana that is outside their traditional service area."

Both tribes have a plausible argument for bypassing lengthy and costly reviews of off-reservation gaming projects. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribe's land claim in New York has been affirmed by a federal judge and tribes who only recently received federal recognition, like the Jenas, are given some leeway for seeking trust lands. But the language in the bill suggest a shift in policy on these fronts.

"Trust status for gaming purposes on non-contiguous lands requires that a tribe engage in a rigorous approval process requiring approval by the Governor of an affected State as well as input and support from the local community," the conference report accompanying the bill states.

Once included in an appropriations bill, riders become law even if they amend existing laws. They are often included in future bills without further question.

The Interior bill was sent to President Bush for his signature yesterday. He is expected to sign it into law.

DOI Budget Bill:

DOI Conference Committee Report:
House Report. 108-330 | PDF Version

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