In a nomination hearing on September 15 before what U.S. Senate Committee Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, called “a beautiful crowd,” Kevin Washburn received strong support in his bid to become the next Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Washburn was nominated by President Barack Obama in early August.
Akaka noted that if Washburn is confirmed, he will take on some “difficult work” at Interior. Congressional leaders have cited a need for strong leadership at the agency after several bureaucratic problems there came to light this year.
Washburn is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. He has been dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law since June 2009, writing and teaching on Indian and gaming legal issues. He previously taught at the University of Arizona, the University of Minnesota and Harvard Law School. “Through his experiences, Mr. Washburn has acquired a vast knowledge of federal Indian law, and has gained a solid foundation in tribal issues, including law enforcement and economic development,” Akaka said in his opening statement, adding that his Senate committee has received letters of support for Washburn’s nomination from more than 40 tribes.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in an opening statement that he offers his “utmost support” for Washburn, who has been “well-loved” at the University of New Mexico, and noted that Washburn has testified before Congress on numerous occasions.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, the lone Native American in Congress, testified on behalf of Washburn. “It’s true that we belong to different parties, but we have a number of things in common,” Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said, pointing to their shared commitment to service and the improvement of Indian country. Cole said he believes Washburn’s skills go beyond theoretical knowledge, given his previous service as a trial lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice, as an assistant U.S. attorney, and as general counsel for the National Indian Gaming Commission. “His background has made him intimately familiar with Indian country and all its diversity, all its complexity, and all its richness.”
Bill Anoatubby, Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, also testified. “I express my unqualified support for his nomination,” the tribal leader said, adding that he believes Washburn is “uniquely qualified” for the position.
During the hearing, Akaka asked Washburn what he thought about the current budgetary climate in Washington, and the effect federal budget cuts could have on the government’s ability to fulfill a trust responsibility to tribes. “That’s something that’s deep on my mind… ,” Washburn replied. “I’m not sure I have all the answers. I will commit to you [that] if I am confirmed, I will be a voice within the Department for strong argument and advocacy for protection of the resources that we need to carry out our solemn obligations to the tribes under treaties and the trust responsibility….” He added that he will also work hard to ensure that Obama’s next budget treats Indian affairs spending fairly.
Washburn said he is firmly committed to broadening tribal consultation and supporting cultural endeavors that will help educate Indian children and ensure that they will become leaders in their tribes. He wants to improve federal recognition and acknowledgment issues that have “festered for years,” and wants to see passage of a clean Carcieri fix by Congress. He also supports a government-to-government relationship for Native Hawaiians. (Akaka got a bill with that goal out of committee on September 14.)
“Among the principles that will guide me if I am confirmed to be the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs is a strong commitment to tribal self determination and self governance,” Washburn stated in his prepared written testimony. “In my writings as an academic, I have questioned the logic of federal agencies serving Indian people. Let me note that I do not question the federal public servants who work in the Indian country context because I have found them to be capable, diligent, and hard-working. But the overall structure of having services provided by people hundreds of miles away is rarely effective. And this brings me back to the basic principle that Indian tribes can serve their citizens, in many cases, better than the federal government can.”
The full Senate must vote on Washburn’s nomination. No senators have objected to his nomination. It’s unknown how quickly the full Senate will act, but Akaka said that his goal is to have the matter addressed soon.