Given that it has been just ten weeks since the historic election of President-elect Barack Obama, there is still much we do not know about the 2009 legislative agenda for Indian Country.
Part of that agenda, however, is clear. There are several leftover items from last year that will command significant attention in 2009. The most immediate are attempts to fix the provisions of the Pension Protection Act of 2006. As you know, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 puts tribal government pension plans at a disadvantage compared to other governmental plans. Last year, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) sponsored legislation to address this inequity, but the legislation was not considered by the Senate. While there is broad consensus that Congress needs to address this problem, labor unions have the ear of the House and Senate leadership, and continue to block a legislative fix. On Dec. 11, 2008, Congress sent a pension bill to the President that did not include the tribal pension fix. The Senate had included the provision in its bills, but the House Democrats were successful in stripping the tribal provisions from the final bill.
As it has been widely reported, Congress has begun work on a massive economic stimulus package that will include billions of dollars for infrastructure projects and will lead to job creation. Many of the leading Native American groups have proposed a comprehensive “Indian Country Economic Recovery Plan." This plan has been submitted to Congress for consideration in the upcoming economic stimulus bill, and groups throughout the country are hard at work to ensure these important provisions are included.
The reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was bogged down in the House of Representatives after easily passing the Senate in early 2008, will be a high priority in 2009. This will be the highest priority for Indian Country, particularly in light of the emphasis on health care reform coming from the Obama health care working group. Unfortunately, it appears Indian health care is not getting as much attention, and much work will be needed to move Indian Health Care to near the front of the line.
Another major piece of legislation important to Indian Country is the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008, which would provide a significant increase in much-needed resources to tribes for law enforcement and prosecution. We expect early action on this legislation and there is expected to be little opposition. Like health care, it will be a matter of where it fits into the overall legislative agenda.
Two other issues important to Indian Country expected to be wrapped up in larger issue bills are the Indian Reservation Road Program and renewable energy provisions as part of a comprehensive energy bill. As you may know, Congress is expected to reauthorize the large transportation bill sometime during the next Congress. Of particular concern to tribes is the Indian Reservation Road Program and how tribes are treated under that program. Southwest and Northern Plains tribes, who have hundreds of miles of roads on their reservations and fee-to-trust lands, are going to fight to keep the program in its current form. It is important to note the transportation bill will be written on the Senate side by California Senator Barbara Boxer.
It is likely that Congress will consider a comprehensive energy bill during 2009. If they do, it will have a substantial renewable energy component and, specifically, there will be a tribal energy title. Sonnenschein will work with tribes to keep them fully informed about all developments relating to renewable energy on tribal lands.
President-elect Obama is very supportive of tribal economic development, and his administration is not expected to take any steps that would be considered anti-gaming. However, there are numerous fee-totrust applications on the Secretary of Interior's desk, and action on those could create shockwaves in the new Congress and new administration. In addition, it is customary for the new administration to freeze many of the ongoing rule-making of the federal agencies. Some matters important to Indian Country may get caught up in this potential freeze.
We don't know who will be appointed Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, NIGC Chairman, and many other administration positions impacting tribes. President-elect Obama has named Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to be Secretary of the Interior. It also isn't yet apparent who is going to take the Senate ranking member spots on Indian Affairs, and the Health, Education & Labor Committee as both Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) are considering other committee slots.
At this time we don't know who is going to step up and be the Republican go-to person for tribal matters on Senate Finance Committee. Last Congress, Senator Smith and Wyoming Senator Craig Thomas assumed that responsibility, and both are no longer in the Senate. This is important since much of the legislation important to Indian County goes through the Senate Finance Committee and both Senators were advocates for tribal concerns.
It will be a busy couple of years overall for Indian County. It will be critical for tribes, in the aggregate, to push their agenda and to ensure it is not lost in the crush of other issues, such as the economy and national security. This will mean moving beyond the committees of jurisdiction (Senate Indian Affairs and House Natural Resources Committee) and combining key tribal issues with non-tribal issues to expand the universe of members willing to advocate for tribes.