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Congressman Cole Opposes Indian Trust Language in Interior Approps Bill

October 30, 2003
Press Release

Washington, D.C. – Congressman Tom Cole voted against the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for FY 2004 Conference Report (H.R. 2691), which passed the House 216-205. Although Cole is generally supportive of the bill, he voted against it because of a provision, added during conference negotiations, that delays justice for 500,000 individual Indian trust beneficiaries.

The Indian trust accounts date from 1887 for items such as the right to drill for oil and gas on Indian-owned lands, the use of timber and grazing rights. In September, a Federal judge ordered the Department of Interior to account for this money that has been mismanaged by the government. Language in H.R. 2691 prevents the department from conducting the accounting.

Following is Congressman Cole's statement to the U.S. Speaker of the House, as prepared for delivery:


Mr. Speaker, I rise today in opposition to the Conference Report on H.R. 2691, the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2004.  I am supportive of the general thrust of this bill, particularly the emergency funds to help fight the wildfires in the West.  Moreover, I recognize the need to finish appropriation bills on a timely basis. 

I respect the Appropriations Committee Chairman and Subcommittee Chairman who laid out the broad framework for this generally laudable appropriations measure.  I want to be clear that my criticisms of the substance of one part of this bill in no way are intended to reflect on the fine work and integrity of the Chairman and the members of the committee.

However, I feel compelled to vote against H.R. 2691 because of one provision in the bill concerning the Indian Trust issue.  This provision was inserted in language funding the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians and would dictate the manner in which the Department of the Interior undertakes a complete historical accounting of individual Indian Trust accounts.  It is clearly the first step in a process designed to impose rather than negotiate a settlement of Indian Trust account claims and to do so for as little money as possible regardless of the merits of individual cases or the historical culpability of the federal government in the mismanagement and theft of Native American assets held in trust.

This provision clearly violates the House Rule against legislating in an appropriations bill.  Moreover, it undermines the excellent work of the Resources Committee, which has held two hearings on the Indian Trust issue and has been in the process of building a bipartisan framework to settle the Indian Trust issue in wake of the questions arising out of the so called Corbel litigation.  If this Conference Report is approved in its present form it will hinder the efforts of the Resources Committee to resolve this issue fairly and honorably for all concerned.

In addition to being legislatively and procedurally unsound, the provision in question is clearly designed to limit the ability of Native Americans to pursue their legitimate claims in court.  Frankly, I predict that this effort will fail.  However, it will cost the litigants and the federal government more rather than less money in the long run.  Moreover, it will further poison the historically poor relations between Indian tribes and the federal government.

Frankly, I am appalled that this language was included in the conference report on H.R. 2691 since it was not part of either the original House or Senate Interior appropriation bills.  It was added in the dead of night in order to avoid legislative scrutiny and open debate.  This is a clear violation of the spirit if not the letter of the normal rules that govern the legislative process.  It discredits the legislative process and should embarrass and disappoint every member of this body regardless of their position on the issue. 

In my opinion, this language delays justice for half a million individual Indian Trust beneficiaries who have waited over 100 years for a full and fair accounting of the property which the federal government holds in trust for them.  This is both reprehensible and unacceptable.   I intend to work within the framework of this institution to see that the mischief done in this appropriations bill is ultimately undone.

Mr. Speaker, it is tragic that this provision was added to this otherwise praiseworthy and essential piece of legislation.  Its inclusion makes it impossible for me or any other member who cares about the rights of Native Americans to support this bill.  However, I take comfort in the fact that this issue will be dealt with again, both in the courts and in the halls of the Congress of this great republic.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.  I yield back the balance of my time.