Interview: How Tester’s Sen. Committee on Indian Affairs Will Shake Things Up

Rob Capriccioso
7/3/14

In comparison to predecessors who have led the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Jon Tester (D-Montana) is a different creature. He’s not too prickly, nor harsh with staff; he’s not seen as overly idealistic, nor super controlled. And he doesn’t appear to have a passing interest in Indian issues, either; in other words, he’s not intent on leaving them behind when he finds a bigger fish to focus on.

While he’s been in the Senate since 2007, he’s still a farmer. Before that, he was a music teacher, and he has a Bachelor of Science in music, too. His wife: also a farmer. He’s visited the reservations in his state. He knows why the Indian vote matters, especially now as the Senate – part of a currently dysfunctional Congress, he laments – hangs in the balance.

Visiting him in the Hart Senate Office Building, it’s clear that he is a comfortable, candid, common-sense man who is focused on Indian stuff because he cares about it, and he wants to get it right. In person, he seems nicer, more jolly, than one gets a sense during committee hearings. He seems good, normal, real—a tribal ally who has a chance to show real power in this domain for years to come if he so chooses and if the voters in his conservative state continue to keep him in office.

He has been in the Senate for a rather short time to already be leading a committee. But it was his destiny after senior Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus retired to become an ambassador to China, and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) decided to move on at the beginning of this year to chair the Small Business Committee.

Cantwell has been criticized for not moving as much critical legislation as Indian country would have liked during her year holding the gavel, and Tester knows the score there. It’s one reason why he’s already passed 15 pieces of legislation through the committee on housing, education, water rights, and a sure-to-be complicated legislative fix to the 2009 Supreme Court Carcieri decision that limited the Department of the Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for tribes. With four hearings scheduled for July alone on some touchy subjects, including gaming and the Cobell settlement, at a time when many of his colleagues are prepping for summer break, perhaps his biggest challenge will be to not flood the engine.

RELATED: Under Tribal Scrutiny: Cantwell Exiting SCIA; Tester to Take Charge

On a late-June humid day in Washington, he wore a white dress shirt, top buttons unbuttoned, no tie, no suit coat. Famous crew cut front and center. Simple desk. No ornate decorations on the walls.

“Welcome,” he said, first looking at the reporter’s colorful tie, lamenting that he’s been instructed to wear toned down ties when he appears on television. “That’s a tie I’d like to wear on TV.”

And, with that, an interview began, touching on a range of pressing issues Tester says he wants to accomplish alongside his Indian allies—making clear that he can only be successful if Indians are willing to take responsibility and lead the way on improving their own prospects.

You have really started out of the gate running. How are you feeling at this point in your chairmanship?

I think we are in pretty good shape. We have pushed a lot of bills out of the committee. We really have taken some of the less controversial bills and moved down the line. I think our next challenge is taking the bills that we’ve gotten out of committee and the ones that don’t get taken up by unanimous consent, figuring out a strategy for the lame duck. Maybe an omnibus Indian bill going forward that could include a lot of stuff, including, potentially, a Carcieri fix. Secondly, particularly related to the hearings we’ve held on education, we need to write up an education bill, get it out of committee. The same thing may be true of economic development: get a bill that deals with economic development in Indian country, and get it out of committee.

Was Sen. Cantwell’s tenure last year – which some people criticized as moving too slow – necessary to get you to this point of action?

Maybe it was. I never thought about it that way. I think Maria did a great job as chairman of the committee. When she stepped aside and I took over the committee, knowing Mary [Pavel, staff director of the committee] for many years, I asked her to characterize the easy bills, the medium bills, and the tough ones. And we proceeded from there. Because we kept the same staff, it allowed Mary to have a solid scope of the landscape because she had worked a year with Maria on the committee.

How are you getting along with these staffers who you didn’t choose?

They’re all really good folks. I like them. They all bring different levels of expertise to the table; like to have fun; easy to be around. It’s a very good staff.

One thing that some in Indian country were worried about given the rapid exit of Sen. Cantwell was that it might take you another year to build your own machine.

Thankfully I have known Mary since I got here [to the Senate]. And I was confident that she would not put substandard people around here, and she hasn’t.

You mentioned an omnibus Indian bill that would hopefully tie in several Indian-focused legislative efforts. When would something like that happen, and are you talking about a standalone bill focused just on Indian issues?

Yeah, there are two ways to approach it. We could look for different bills to attach things on as amendments. Or we could put a standalone together. To be bluntly honest with you, I’ve got to talk to Harry [Reid, Senate Majority Leader (D-Nevada)]. I haven’t talked to him yet, because we haven’t talked as a staff yet on what we want to do. If Harry says no, we can’t do an omnibus bill, then we fall back to tell him that we want to attach them to bills to get votes on them…. We didn’t do all this work just for show. We are going to try to get something functionally done at the other end.

Do you worry if it’s a standalone bill that would present too many opportunities for other senators to want to get their compromises in there; whereas if it is attached to another bill, it might be less likely to be tinkered with?

There are some advantages and disadvantages going both ways, and you have touched on them. The advantage of a standalone Native American bill is that it has never been done before, and you have some great Native bills out there right now that have been carried by both Republicans and Democrats. So I think we could have a truly bi-partisan effort moving forward here. I think the big issue is going to be whether there is going to be enough time. Will Harry give me enough time to do a Native American bill?

Majority Leader Reid has been vocal on Indian issues lately, leading the way against the Redskins team name, introducing legislation to expand trust lands for Nevada tribes.

Yes, he was very supportive when I took the gavel, and he told me to get to work and do some stuff. So I can always remind him of that when I go to ask him about this bill.

You recently held a hearing on tribal economic development. Everyone talks about wanting to fix the economies of struggling reservations, but that kind of talk has happened throughout American history, really. How do you change that?

I tell you how to change it. We don’t fix it from Washington, D.C., and they don’t fix it on the ground. We have to work together. That’s one of the reasons why we have tried to be as transparent and as encompassing as we can be on this committee. We need Native Americans’ input. The programs that we set up and potentially fund, they have to be held responsible for doing the right thing to be sure their kids are getting an education, or the money is being spent right for economic development.

If tribes think that I can fix their economy, I can’t. The whole Congress can’t fix their economy. The truth is, with good communication, working together, we can fix it together. I’ve also got to find Indian leaders who are willing to step up. And I think we’ve found some who are willing to step up and say this is what we need to do in Indian country to make things work, and then we [Congress] need to support it.

The principle of self-determination has been around for a long time, and some tribes have been able to more successfully take advantage of the opportunities involved with it. Why have some tribes not been able to take advantage of those opportunities?

I don’t know. Sometimes the federal government holds them back. Some tribes have done it better than others. We had a hearing in Montana on Indian healthcare, and it was very apparent to me that the tribes that were block granted the money were doing a better job than the others. That’s about self-determination and them taking responsibility.

The tribes that are doing very well have now been able to become a part of the American political system, hiring strong lobbyists, making big campaign finance donations. What is your role in thinking about all that and how it juxtaposes against the needs of the most struggling tribes?

Every one of those tribes that are struggling has opportunity, and I think we have to figure out ways that they can expand on that opportunity. But it really has to be driven from the local level. You know, I can’t walk on to [the] Crow [reservation] and say, you know, you guys have great opportunities in tourism, and we need to do this, this, and this. That isn’t going to work. They need to come with the program and ask if there is any way for the federal government to help out.

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