Washington in brief
McCain release makes Indian policy unanimous among presidential candidates
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain has released an American Indian policy paper, making 2008 the first year in memory when every serious presidential candidate will face the voters in November with a distinct, high-profile, pro-tribal policy.
Hillary Clinton announced her policy early, and fellow Democratic candidate Barack Obama unveiled his as the primary season entered the Western states, where the great majority of Native people reside.
McCain, meanwhile, has concentrated on a comeback at the polls that left him as the only GOP contender with a chance to go the distance. Based on his many years as a senator in Indian-populous Arizona, his two full Congresses at the helm of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and his continuing seat on the committee, few doubted that commitments from McCain to Indian country would be forthcoming.
The mid-March release touts a 25-year track record of policy accomplishments, including sponsorship of the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 and measures to provide incentives for reservation-based businesses through tax policy; constant support of tribal law enforcement, health care, housing, education and Native veterans; and protection of the special relationship between tribes and the federal government.
The policy paper begins with a simple quotation from McCain - ''I believe the federal government has a special ethical and legal responsibility to help make the American Dream accessible to Native Americans'' - and goes on to note the support and friendship of many individuals in Indian country over the years.
Among several future pledges from McCain as president are one to ''reinvigorate the policy of Tribal Self-Governance,'' which relatively few tribes have opted for in full measure despite glowing reports from those that have (testimony before Congress suggests that concerns about the future of federal funding have made some tribes wary of administering the full gamut of their programs with funds that could dwindle unpredictably), and another of ''close consultation with the tribes.''
The closest thing to an ambiguity in the statement comes on the issue of gaming, which is discussed under the heading of economic development. The assertion that McCain has ''consistently fought to protect the right of tribes to engage in gaming on Indian lands'' is documented truth; but in 2006, many tribes were displeased that McCain, then chairman of the SCIA, took a prominent role in failed GOP efforts to restrict or forbid most new off-reservation gaming.
St. Regis Mohawk Nation Chief Lorraine White, in a recent podcast with Indian Country Today, took note however that McCain's bill made sensible provision for tribes that could be ''grandfathered in'' as exceptions to the proposed law, based on years of effort that should not be laid waste by new rules.
Trust plaintiffs estimate $58 billion as 'minimum harm'
Plaintiff attorneys have provided the court in the Individual Indian Money trust lawsuit with an estimate of $58 billion due in restitution.
Judge James Robertson ruled Jan. 30 that the federal government, through its delegate agency the Interior Department, cannot now or ever account for revenues due in the IIM accounts, mostly from royalties on the assets of trust lands such as minerals, timber, oil and gas, and grazing pastures.
Concurring with testimony that Interior had permitted lessees to report their income (and, in turn, the percentage of royalties they owed) on a form of ''honor system,'' Robertson nonetheless found little to like in the monetary estimates of proper restitution from either the plaintiff attorneys or government solicitors.
He permitted plaintiff attorneys to name a new figure first. In response to his orders, the $58 billion number represents ''a more defensible estimate of how much money failed to reach the Indians,'' according to a March 20 release that quoted lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell: ''We believe that our numbers are very conservative and represent the minimum harm that Indians have suffered under our broken trust system.''
Robertson has scheduled June 9 as the opening day of a trial on resolution of the trust breach adjudicated Jan. 30. His stated intention is to complete the long-running trial by summer's end, if not before.
Rahall cites Interior land-into-trust guidance on consultation bill
Declaring himself ''disappointed that such legislation is even necessary,'' Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has introduced a bill that would mandate federal consultation with tribes on policies that affect their citizens.
The legislation would require the Interior Department, IHS and the National Indian Gaming Commission to enter into a ''true consultation process'' with tribes and Alaska Natives before enacting new policies that directly affect them.
The Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments Act, H.R. 5608 in the House of Representatives, would give statutory authority to an executive order, famous among tribes, that was issued by President Bill Clinton. Presidential Executive Order 13175, following a policy of the Clinton administration, required consultation with tribes on a government-to-government basis. But executive orders do not have the force of law, and Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the current presidency of George W. Bush has ignored it at will.
The latest example, according to Rahall, as quoted in a release from the committee, regards the land-into-trust applications of tribes that had pursued an established process, only to find a new ''commutable distance'' standard pressed into service against them. ''A January 2008 Interior Department Guidance Memo that was issued without any tribal input, and that changed federal policy toward Indian tribes, is the latest example of this administration's disregard for its responsibilities,'' Rahall stated.
''We cannot afford to repeat the mistaken policies of the past, where the federal government makes decisions and policies in a vacuum,'' he added.