Another slow start for House committee in charge of tribal affairs

President Barack Obama protected 1.9 million acres of sacred sites and ancestral territory as the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Photo: White House

Having Republicans in control of Congress hasn't resulted in much progress for Indian Country's legislative agenda, at least on the House side of Capitol Hill.

In 2016, the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs met just five times to take up Indian issues. Only seven bills were considered by the panel that entire year and only three of those became law.

The record in 2015 was markedly better although not without a major disclaimer. The subcommittee met 12 times on Indian matters but four of those hearings were focused on extremely controversial issues, which drew criticism from tribes and the Obama administration.

And during both years, the subcommittee was slow to get to work. Indian Country waited three months for the first hearing of 2015 and two months for the first of 2016.

So far, 2017 is shaping up as a repeat. The 115th Congress began on January 3 but the subcommittee has yet to meet or convene a hearing, leaving Indian Country largely in the dark about the agenda.

The House Committee on Natural Resources in fact isn't holding its first organizational meeting until February 7, more than a month after lawmakers returned to work. The panel oversees the Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee.

The organizational meeting will result in the formal selection of the committee and subcommittee chairs. On the Republican side, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has asked to chair the subcommittee once again.

For Democrats, Rep. Norma Torres (D-California) will serve as ranking member of the panel. She is serving her second term in Congress.

The entire committee will once again be chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), whose record on Indian issues has been shaky. He pushed for the controversial hearings in 2015 that didn't result in any gains for tribes.

Bishop also opposed the establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument even though a large number of tribes support it. Instead, he introduced a controversial bill that would have taken 100,000 acres from the Ute Tribe without the tribe's consent. The bill also modified a trust fund for the Navajo Nation, again without the tribe's consent.

The Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee wasn't allowed to hold a hearing on the bill -- it was directed to a different panel that did not invite Ute or Navajo leaders to testify. In the end, Bishop's bill failed to advance and Congress and tribes celebrated when former President Barack Obama declared the monument at Bears Ears last month.

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