The 109th is a Congress of distraction for Indian country

Jerry Reynolds
10/25/06

Analysis – Part two

WASHINGTON – Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona and a few other senior Republican lawmakers from Native-populous states, would probably take names if anyone told him the tribes in his state were going to be abused on his watch. But the influential Republican couldn’t have been thinking of tribes nationwide when he permitted the Section 1813 addition to the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

The requirement of a study of tribal energy rights of way has cost the money, time and attention of approximately 70 single tribes, as well as the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and the National Congress of American Indians. Yet a preliminary draft of the report found no evidence that tribal energy rights of way confound national security or raise the price of energy to consumers.

And still tribes remain on tenterhooks, plowing time and money into playing defense against a threat to undermine tribal consent in rights of way decisions, hoping to head off any hostile amendments to that effect that may surface in the November lame duck session of Congress, wondering how the Section 1813 final report may play out in the next Congress.

No, Domenici couldn’t have been thinking of tribes nationwide when all this went forward. He was thinking instead of his state and of industry giant El Paso Natural Gas Co., which sought an advantage in its rights of way negotiations with the Navajo Nation. As with Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., in his campaign against “reservation shopping” for casino sites, tribes nationwide have been distracted from standing interests by a one-state issue.

But at least they were issues that referred to something outside of Congress. The same can’t be said of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Here again, tribes nationwide have had to deal, not with a one-state issue this time, but with a one-party fixation on the reform of Indian gaming.

Tribal leaders have not come off altogether untarnished and worse may be in store – the FBI and the Justice Department may be pursuing inquiries congressional investigations avoided. Nonetheless, eight Capitol Hill indictments and counting have made it clear that the tribal gaming money commandeered by Abramoff took aim at the exploitation of Congress. Congress didn’t begin to mend its ways on lobbying – it took the X-rated predation of former GOP Rep. Mark Foley to revive its moribund ethics committees.

But in the aftermath of Abramoff, many congressional members have seen their chance to regulate Indian gaming. Again, the Republican majority in Congress is responding to state interests rather than national ones. In particular, a number of states are entrenched in an anti-gaming posture for one reason or another; and a number of local constituencies, motivated by an evangelical Christian presence, have demanded conservative action against it.

True to its character as a Congress of distraction for Indian country, the 109th Congress has used the Abramoff affair to distract attention from its own desperate straits as an institution to a target of opportunity, Indian gaming. The Department of Justice called its bluff, exposing Congress and its supporting cast of think tanks, lobbying shops and nonprofits as a sometime racketeering operation, greased by money from structurally unsound governments in Indian country, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam and other Abramoffian haunts.

But there is still no saying Congress won’t clamber onto the moral high ground long enough to descend on Indian gaming.

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