Two longtime congressional friends of Indian country, Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Jim Moran (D-Virginia), announced this week they are joining the increasing outflow of retiring legislators from Congress in the coming months.
Miller, 68, has served in Congress for nearly 40 years and has become a top confidante of Democrats in the chamber, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Early this week, he announced that he would retire after his current term expires at the end of the year.
Miller was most recently chairman of the Education and Labor Committee from 2007 to 2011 when Democrats were in control of the lower chamber. Before that, from 1991 to 1994, he was the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee where he oversaw much crucial Indian-focused legislation. Since serving as a leader on that committee he has played an influential behind-the-scenes role on Indian issues.
Tadd Johnson, former counsel and staff director for the Committee on Natural Resources in the Office of Indian Affairs and the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs in the early 1990s, recalls that tribes and Indian organizations were generally wary of Miller when he began leading the committee because some thought he could not come close to living up to the strong legacy of Rep. Mo Udall (D-Arizona) there on Indian issues. But soon, Miller built trust with tribes, helping to overturn a negative Supreme Court ruling through legislation and then moving a bill to improve tribal courts.
What really helped Miller earn his stripes was his willingness to support Indian gaming—something that many federal legislators and executives have been quiet about doing as of late for various reasons, none of which are good for Indian country.
“George really won the tribes over when he took on Donald Trump and the anti-Indian gaming forces,” Johnson says, recalling the defeat of anti-Indian gaming legislation aimed at undoing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act led by the casino magnate and others in the mid-1990s. “He became chair of the full committee just three years after the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became law,” adds Johnson, now head of the American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. “Many in the mainstream gaming industry did not want the law to succeed. George held a series of oversight hearings and ultimately decided to just let the act work. The tribes learned quickly that he was a good guy to have on your side.”
On the gaming front, Miller also memorably supported an off-reservation casino for the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians while serving as ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee. In 2000, he inserted an amendment to the Omnibus Indian Advancement Act that took land into federal trust for the tribe, making the land acquisition retroactive to before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed. The tribe was then able to open a casino legally on the land under the law. Anti-Indian gaming opponents have long criticized him for that action, but he has never regretted the action.
Beyond gaming achievements, Chris Stearns, who previously worked as Democratic counsel for the Natural Resources Committee while Miller served there, says the legislator’s major victories for Indian country included passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act amendments, the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, and the protection of Indian education in the No Child Left Behind Act, which he sponsored. Pro-tribal sovereignty initiatives, water rights settlements, tax incentives, and increased funding for Indian roads are also part of his legacy. He additionally helped a number of tribes that had been terminated to achieve federal recognition.
“He is a rare gem in Congress,” adds longtime House staffer Marie Howard, who also worked for Miller when he led the Natural Resources Committee. “Whenever I went to him with a new issue, he always asked the same question, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ It was never what is easiest or most popular, but what is the right thing to do to make Native American lives better.”
Howard predicted his retirement will be a “huge loss” for Indian country, adding, “We truly will not again see the likes of George Miller for a very long time.
Another pretty big loss came later in the week when Moran, also 68, announced his impending retirement. While there are no federally recognized tribes in his home state of Virginia, he has most recently served as the ranking member on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees a large chunk of the federal budget for all of Indian country. In that role, he has worked to protect the federal Indian budget from several proposed cuts, although he could not prevent the devastating effects of sequestration over the past year.
During Moran’s nearly 25 years in Congress, he has supported a number of Indian-focused bills. Of special note, when he led the Interior subcommittee in 2010, it passed a spending bill that included a clean Carcieri fix to the controversial 2009 Supreme Court decision that limited the Department of Interior’s ability to take land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after 1934. The full House passed the clean fix that December, but it did not move in the Senate that year, and it hasn’t moved in either chamber since. “There have been ?ve hundred years of broken promises,” Moran told tribal leaders gathered at a legislative conference in 2010 as he rallied support for the fix. “If Carcieri is allowed to continue, it would be another shameful chapter in that history.”
Moran has also been a strong supporter of granting federal recognition to several Virginia Indian tribes. “In the name of decency, fairness, and humanity, I urge my colleagues to support this legislation and bring closure to centuries of injustice Virginia’s tribes have experienced,” he said in a statement last year. “Federal recognition is long past due, and with strong bipartisan support, this should be the year Virginia’s tribes finally receive the recognition they have earned.” Still, the legislation did not pass Congress in 2013, and similar efforts have stalled for a number of years, much to the chagrin of tribal citizens in the state.
The gridlock that has become a part of today’s Congress played a role in Moran’s decision to exit at the end of this term, although he said in an interview with The Washington Post that he would have stayed on if he felt his seat was in danger of being lost to the Republicans.
“We all recognize that there’s going to be little to do in terms of new initiatives, especially anything bold…over the next few years,” Moran warned in the interview.