The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee is demanding that the Obama administration hold off on new rules that could make it easier for Indian groups to win federal recognition as tribes.
American Indians have been pushing for years to revise the process, but proposed regulations nearing the finish line have deeply divided existing tribes, and Congress.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, says he's prepared to use every tool at his disposal to block enactment of the regulations. He criticized the Interior Department for forwarding the regulations to the Office of Management and Budget for final approval earlier this week. He said the administration has ignored lawmakers' requests to hold off on the rules until Congress has a chance to review them.
"Are our concerns not important to you?" Bishop asked an Obama administration official during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday evening.
Kevin Washburn, an assistant secretary of the Department of Interior, said the administration has been criticized for moving too slowly on the regulations, and he refused Bishop's request.
"There's been a lot of oversight. In fact, that's where we got a lot of our ideas," Washburn said. "... There's been an enormous amount of effort, and we are going to try to get this done."
Federal recognition has been granted to 566 American tribes, and it is sought by others because of the health and education benefits it brings to tribal members, along with opportunities for commercial development. Under the current recognition process, which dates back to 1978, the Interior Department has recognized 17 tribes and denied 34 requests.
A proposed rule issued 11 months ago changes some of the thresholds groups would need to meet to be federally recognized as a tribe. For example, the proposed regulation reduced how far back in time a tribe must demonstrate it has been a distinct political entity with authority over its members. The proposed regulation would also allow tribes denied federal recognition to try again.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have expressed concern about the cost to the federal government, and about how the approval of new tribes could alter the casino landscape in their home states. Existing tribes have also raised the casino issue and say that adding tribes would stretch already scarce federal resources allocated for health care, education and housing for Native Americans.
"The legitimacy of the federal acknowledgement process, no matter how cumbersome, must be protected," said Robert Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, based in California.
The National Congress of American Indians, whose members include leaders from dozens of tribes, is supporting the administration's efforts. Brian Cladoosby, president of the group, said applicants now wait decades before the federal government reaches a final decision. He said the changes being sought address a basic need for efficiency.
Washburn told lawmakers that some of the concerns he's heard from lawmakers and existing tribes will be addressed when the final regulations are enacted.
"It's a difficult compromise because we've got people all over the political map on this. But my job is to do what I think is right, and I think we've reached that," Washburn said.
Bishop was insistent, though, about pulling the regulations back to allow more congressional input.
"One way or another, we're going to push you until we do it the right way," Bishop said.