Members of Congress are taking a week off of their lame-duck session this week during the Thanksgiving holiday, but actions have been popping in Washington in their short session before the break.
Montana’s U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester Friday applauded the Senate’s unanimous passage of a plan to pay Native Americans in a settlement of a decades-old lawsuit filed by Blackfeet Tribal member Eloise Cobell.
“For too long, our American Indian brothers and sisters have waited for a resolution to an embarrassing example of government irresponsibility,” Baucus said in a release. “Now it’s time to keep fighting for good paying-jobs and investment in education in Indian Country.”
'Hundreds of thousands ... have waited "
“Hundreds of thousands of folks in Indian Country have waited too long for this settlement,” said Tester, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “We have a responsibility to get this passed and signed into law because it’s in the best interest of Montana and all of Indian Country — and it’s the right thing to do.”
Cobell filed the suit saying the federal government had mismanaged Indian trust lands, involving more than 300,000 trust accounts.
“I want to thank senators Baucus and Tester for leading the fight in the Senate to provide a long-overdue conclusion to this settlement,” Cobell said. “Too many Native Americans have died waiting for justice. My greatest optimism lies ahead hoping that today’s news gives way to permanent reform in the way the Departments of Interior and Treasury account for and manage Individual Indian Money accounts.”
The legislation, which now goes to the House for its vote, also approved a settlement in the Crow Tribe’s federal water compact. Tester helped negotiate the compact with Wyoming’s U.S. senators, and Baucus worked on the funding of the legislation in the Finance Committee, which he chairs.
On the House side, Montana’s Rep. Denny Rehberg sent a letter to Baucus and Tester, both Democrats, after he voted with the House Republican Caucus to put a two-year moratorium on earmarks. In the letter, Rehberg urged the Montana senators to support the ban.
“Senate Democrats may be the last 53 people in the country who haven’t noticed the old spending games won’t fly anymore,” Rehberg, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a release. “Last year, I joined House Republicans in a voluntary earmark moratorium. Now Democratic President (Barack) Obama and Governor (Brian) Schweitzer are hailing the foresight of this leadership and urging their party allies to fall in line.
“Earmarks are headed toward extinction,” Rehberg added. “It’s high time for Senate Democrats to heed the voice of the American voter.”
Obama has indicated he supports cutting back on earmarks, although he said some support worthy projects. The Republicans have called on him to oppose all earmarks, and to veto bills containing them.
The impact of banning earmarks — legislators adding spending to specific projects, generally in their home state — would be limited. While Republicans have called for a year to stop earmarks to reduce the federal deficit — Rehberg pledged last winter that he would use no earmarks — the amount is minuscule compared to the deficit.
$16.3 billion in earmarks
The federal deficit is now $1.3 trillion, while earmarks accounted for about $16.5 billion of federal spending. Much of that was not additional spending, but money moved from one project to another.
Rehberg, who has sponsored numerous earmarks for Montana projects in his 10 years in the House, has said not all specific spending shifts are earmarks, The Rocky Boy’s-North Central Montana Water system, which will provide treated water for some 30,000 Montana residents of Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation and other north-central Montana communities, for example, was approved and authorized by Congress, he said.
If the president does not fund authorized projects like that, finding funding for them is not truly an earmark, Rehberg said in a telephone press conference Nov. 10.
The Montana Democratic Party issued a response to Rehberg’s letter to Baucus and Tester.
“Congressman Rehberg lecturing his colleagues about spending is like hearing a drunk lecturing other people about drinking,” party representatives said in the release. “He squandered a $153 billion budget surplus the year he took office, gave himself a pay raise every year he was in the majority and just last year requested federal funds for a swimming pool before his party bosses in Washington, D.C. told him he had to flip-flop on earmarks.”
More recreational areas needed in forests
Rehberg this morning also called on the U.S. Forest Service to make sure recreational access is available in national forests, saying Montanans have expressed concerns about vague language in a management plan being drafted.
“We’ve seen time and time again that when a regulation is vague, unelected bureaucrats tend to abuse the wiggle room to the detriment of the people of Montana,” Rehberg said in a press release this morning. “It takes more work to get it right the first time, but in the long run, it saves money and leads to better policy
The Senate also will take up a bill with a provision added by Tester he says will help protect small farmers and ranchers throughout the nation. The food safety bill expands the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to recall tainted food as well as increasing inspections and holding producers to stricter food-safety requirements.
Tester included provisions in a food safety bill pending in the Senate that will exempt smaller farms that sell in a restricted area. State and local authorities will regulate farms with a less-than $500,000 annual income which sell directly to consumers, restaurants or grocery stores within their states or within 275 miles of their farms.
“We deal with consolidation in our energy sector, we deal with consolidation in our banking sector,” Tester said in a release. “We have consolidation in our food industry too. The fact is we need to not encourage that consolidation.
“I think if we can get more locally grown food — if we can get producers to connect up the consumers eyeball to eyeball — that’s a positive thing,” he added. “And I don’t want to diminish their ability to do this.”
Tester’s own farm does not qualify for the exemption because he does not sell directly to consumers.