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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Akaka plans to push “Carcieri Fix” in the lame-duck Congress

Waiting for the CCA call for Charlestown to circle the wagons again?
By Will Collette

Indian Country Today reports that retiring Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) intends to make one last push to enact a “Carcieri Fix” amendment to the Indian Reorganization Act when Congress convenes for a final “lame duck” session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), according to the United Southern and Eastern Tribes, has put this legislation on his list of uncompleted items for this Congress that should be addressed in the lame duck [session].”

Pre-colonial Indian lands in southern New England
Congress’s top priority during this lame-duck session is to find a tax and spending compromise that prevents the country from going over the “fiscal cliff” on December 31st when taxes will automatically rise for most taxpayers and drastic cuts to all parts of the federal government will be imposed. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that if Congress fails to arrive at a deal and the automatic program cuts and tax hikes kick in, the country will be plunged back into recession.

How, exactly, Congress will also find either the time or political will to take up the Carcieri Fix during a special session of Congress where few of the members actually want to be there seems pretty problematic.

Senator Akaka has been the most steadfast proponent of the “Carcieri Fix,” which would address the US Supreme Court’s misgivings with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The Supreme Court issued its Carcieri v. Salazar decision in 2009 in response to a lawsuit originally filed by Charlestown aimed at blocking the Narragansett Indian Tribe from placing the site of a proposed 31 acre low-income senior citizen housing project under federal trust with the US Interior Department.

Charlestown leaders, especially those in the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, believe any such action opens the door for the Narragansetts to build a resort casino in Charlestown[1].

But the Supreme Court decision not only gave Charlestown what it wanted, but did so at the expense of over 500 Indian tribes spread across the US. The decision, written by über-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, held that Congress was unclear about whether the Indian Reorganization Act applied to all tribes or only those recognized prior to the Act‘s passage.

So the decision held that not only the Narragansetts but all other tribes recognized after the Act’s passage were not covered under the rights and protections granted under the Act. While this Supreme Court decision addressed Charlestown’s fears about what the Tribe might do with its own land, it did so by disempowering hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who have done nothing to earn Charlestown’s fear or anger.

The Obama Administration supports a “Carcieri Fix” – a new piece of legislation that reinterprets the 1934 statute – that essentially says that Congress does intend for all federally recognized tribes to enjoy equal protection under the law. As the United Tribes put it, “From a moral standpoint, all tribes should be treated the same. They should be accorded like respect for their sovereignty and they should have an equal right to add to their tribal land base.”

Many members of Congress support the “fix,” even across party lines, because despite the sharp political divides in this country, most people accept the principle of equal protection under the law. Except in Charlestown.

It’s possible the Senate might vote to enact a “Carcieri Fix” as a free-standing bill as a retirement gift to Senator Akaka, but that is, in my opinion, highly unlikely, given the intense pressure Congress faces to deal with the “fiscal cliff.” Even if the Senate gives Senator Akaka this bill as a going-away gift, it’s hard to imagine that the “Carcieri Fix” will also pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

If Congress does pass the Carcieri Fix, President Obama has already said he will sign it.

In previous articles, I have written that the Carcieri Fix does not mean by any wild stretch of the imagination that the Narragansetts will be breaking ground on a casino in Charlestown. Unlike the 1990s, when Charlestown’s Democratic-controlled Town Council rejected the first proposed casino, the economics for casino construction have made a Charlestown casino highly improbable no matter what happens to the Carcieri v. Salazar decision.

I have been heavily criticized by the CCA for taking that position. The CCA thinks that any nod toward the rights of Native Americans makes me a proponent of a Charlestown casino, which I am not. Supporting the civil rights of all Native American tribes is not the same as wanting to see a casino or any gaming establishment get built in Charlestown.

I think that now that the election is over, the CCA ought to rethink its anti-Narragansett rhetoric and consider the long-term consequences of insisting that Charlestown remain in a constant state of Indian war. Sure, it’s great campaign rhetoric and no doubt a good selling point to their campaign contributors. But it’s just plain wrong.

The Tribe are our neighbors, and we should be looking for ways to work together, rather than continue to treat the Tribe as an enemy.

[1] The Foxwoods casino complex owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe uses much of the tribe’s 1250 acres. Mohegan Sun casino uses 240 acres.