This year Wyoming’s Junior Senator, John Barrasso, took the gavel as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It’s a new spotlight for Barrasso who frequently appears on CSPAN or cable news railing against the Affordable Care Act.
But as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee he’s got one of the largest portfolios in Congress because of all the daunting issues facing Indian Country.
“Health, issues of housing, issues of education, the economy in general where unemployment is very high you also see incredible substance abuse, you see high instance of suicide and as a doctor that to me all fit under the umbrella of health.”
The committee is known for its history of being one of the most bipartisan places on Capitol Hill. Still, Barrasso is a staunch conservative, which seems to be working well in his dealings with the nation’s tribes – sovereign nations that have a long and often ugly history in their dealings with U.S. federal officials.
“A committee working together and what we’ve all found is that the best solutions are not ones that come from the government, they come from the people right there on the ground they know what works best it’s just a way to try and get the government out of the way,” said Barrasso.
In that vein, the chairmanship is giving Barrasso a new venue to rant and rail against Washington bureaucrats. Take his anger on water issues in Indian Country.
“You know the government almost 100 years ago started many irrigation projects on reservations all over the country then the depression hit and it never got completed. The built up maintenance backlog is huge, the money isn’t there to do it and yet Washington dropped the ball and that was 100 years ago so we’re stilling trying to deal with Washington getting too involved.”
Barrasso is proud that in this gridlocked Congress his committee has been active, passing 20 bipartisan bills thus far. One bill that’s passed out of the committee would help with housing needs in Indian Country while another that passed the full Senate addresses the spike in suicides in elementary and secondary schools in Indian Country.
“Seven have gone through the Senate and a lot of it has to do with giving Native American communities opportunities to make decisions for themselves.”
Barrasso is garnering praise thus far. Former Chairman of the committee, John McCain of Arizona, said Barrasso is a great fit as chairman.
“I think he’s doing a superb job I really do. I think he’s doing a great job he’s one of the most active chairmen we’ve ever had and frankly he’s addressing some of the fundamental issues that affect Indian Country, like alcohol and other problems to.”
It’s not just Republicans. Montana Senator Jon Tester is the top Democrat on the committee. He said there’s been a lot of continuity between Barrasso’s tenure as chairman and when Democrats were in charge.
“There’s a lot of bills that he’s taking up that we took up that were important issues so I got no complaints.”
But when it comes to tribal issues, lawmakers matter less than Native Americans themselves. Some tribal leaders and native activists report being dubious when Barrasso took over the gavel this year. Jaqueline Pata is the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and she admits that Barrasso has done well.
“Well actually I’ve been very pleasantly pleased with you know his leadership and their strategy about moving forward.”
Pata said Barrasso hit the ground running on issues ranging from Indian health care to drug use, even though she initially thought he was biting off too much.
“I mean he made it very clear at the beginning of his term you know if he becoming the chair that he had an agenda that he wanted to priority list of issues that he wanted to look at and it was a pretty hefty list and you know through hearings and other work they’ve really tackled that list and moving on those issues even though some of them are pretty challenging.”
But there’s one big problem hanging over Barrasso’s head: getting floor time for his committee’s priorities. Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma is one of two Native Americans currently in Congress. Cole knows how tough it is to make the priorities of Indian Country important in Washington.
“Well it is you know and that’s a tough thing because again many members don’t have significant tribal presence or Native American population, so there’s large portions of the Congress that are not directly concerned with these issues and frankly are not particular knowledgeable about them.”
Now leaders across Indian Country are watching to see if Barrasso can use his perch as a member of the Republican leadership team in the Senate to get his committee’s bills quickly considered in a chamber known for being bottled up.