Sacred Sites Vote Offers Glimpse into Washington Process
WASHINGTON - The value of a vote in Washington is that it answers the old
question of the Appalachias: Whose side are you on?
Except that in Washington, everyone knows a vote will put you in one camp
or the other on closely contested issues. And so a world of energy goes
into getting congressional members onto the record with a vote on certain
issues, while another world of energy is devoted to avoiding a vote on
certain issues. For in both instances, the vote will be used to appeal to
voters, either in your behalf or against you.
This is always so, but especially in presidential election years.
Further complicating matters, lawmakers may not be as interested in scoring
political points against the other party as they are in passing laws that
are important to them.
When a close vote in the House of Representatives went against his
amendment to protect Native sacred sites, Rep. Nick Rahall of West
Virginia, ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee with
jurisdiction over many Indian issues, not only knew where key Republicans
stood on the issue - he called them out on it. Rahall had offered the
amendment to a spending bill and it fell only a few votes short of becoming
law. For their crucial votes against the amendment to ban federal spending
on projects that could undermine Native sacred sites, Rahall accused
Republican Reps. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona and Richard Pombo of California
of paying lip service to Native interests while voting against them on his
Pombo and Hayworth, tried-and-true friends of Indians on other issues,
didn't take that sitting down. Republican staff on the House Committee on
Resources, which Pombo chairs, insisted Rahall offered the amendment as a
stunt to embarrass the Republicans. They say he offered the amendment
despite knowing Pombo's standing position against attaching so-called
"rider" amendments on appropriations bills, and despite Republican offers
to hold a full committee hearing on the bill that would have explored
sacred sites protection in light of the highly-regarded model crafted by
the Federal Communications Commission and the United Southern and Eastern
In addition, they said, the Republican lawmakers opposed the amendment on
its merits, because a foggy definition of "Indian religious practitioners"
in an underlying Presidential executive order (13007 of May 24, 1996)
raised the prospect of practitioners from one tribe interrupting the
development efforts of another tribe in another state.
Democratic staff on the House Resources Committee deny all this. Jim Zoia,
the committee's Democratic staff director, said the Republicans indeed
offered a hearing on the issue - "but they would not commit to bringing the
issue up for a vote" of the full committee. That in effect led Rahall to
offer his amendment to the spending bill, pitting him against Pombo's
doctrine on "rider" amendments to appropriations bills. But any amendment
lawmakers do not like, they dismiss as a rider, whereas amendments they do
like are simply amendments, Zoia said. He added that Rahall's amendment was
well within House rules or it would not have made it to the floor for a
Zoia said the Rahall amendment on sacred sites was anything but a stunt.
"He has been serious on this issue in word and action."
His amendment had the support of the National Congress of American Indians.
But after Rahall circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter to lawmakers claiming
NCAI's support - a document that could have made the difference on a Native
issue many lawmakers are not notably familiar with - Pombo issued a letter
to NCAI demanding an explanation.
Pombo recalled last year's "midnight rider" in the House that circumvented
his committee in order to place a moratorium on federal expenditures aimed
at an accounting for the Indian trust funds case. NCAI has been second to
none in demanding an end to such rider amendments on appropriations bills.
Yet here they were favoring one that seemed to support Indians, and without
any discussion with Pombo or his staff. Pombo reminded NCAI of the
resistance he has offered to rider amendments that clearly don't favor
tribes, and noted the extra difficulty of convincing House Republican
leadership they should follow regular order in channeling those amendments
through his committee when a major Native organization in Washington
appears inconsistent in its stated position on the issue. Eventually
committee staff asked if NCAI would prevail on Rahall to withdraw the
NCAI responded by trying to sit the fence on this one, but in any case its
position had not been cleared up in time to reach lawmakers before debate
on the amendment.
But then NCAI was not casting a vote. When an issue finally comes to a
vote, lawmakers seldom enjoy the luxury of sitting the fence. The vote went
against the amendment, 215 - 209, six too few for victory, but far too many
to consider it a stunt.