Many partisans on both ends of the political spectrum were surprised to read in September that U.S. Representative Tom Cole—a Republican running for re-election in conservative Oklahoma—believed that President Barack Obama and his team are running a solid campaign.
But to those in Indian country, the bipartisan nod from Cole—a political strategist and historian before he began serving in Congress in 2003—wasn’t surprising, since the sole enrolled Native American Congress member has long advocated reaching across the aisle and giving credit where credit is due, especially on Indian issues. “I have certainly worked well with my Democratic colleagues, and have worked well with the Obama administration on Indian affairs,” says Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who is running against Independent candidate R.J. Harris and Democrat Donna Bebo for the Oklahoma Fourth Congressional District seat. “A lot of people have a lot to be proud of.”
In a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Cole made clear that he strongly supports Mitt Romney’s bid for the White House, and he believes Indian issues are being unnecessarily politicized.
What do you make of the August report by the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee that said Representative Paul Ryan’s budget would cut $375 million from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and $637 million from the Indian Health Service (IHS)?
They’re trying to make something partisan that’s not partisan. Their numbers are totally fallacious. These guys don’t have to make up numbers; they can look at real numbers. If they want to know what the Ryan budget means in Indian country, they ought to just look at what the House has done under the Ryan budget in 2011 and 2012, and what it would propose doing in 2013. If they looked at both IHS and BIA, they’d find that in each of those years House Republicans actually appropriated more for both than the Obama administration even requested. This idea that a Ryan budget means cuts in Indian programs is simply not true. We have evidence that while it lowers overall government spending, it also allows us to reprioritize where the money goes. And on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and Environment, where I sit, there’s a bipartisan commitment to increasing funding in Indian country well beyond what the White House has asked for. We have a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who recognize the Indian country has been historically underfunded.
The Democrats who put out this report—what do you think their goal is?
I think this is campaign scare tactics to try to frighten people who have no need to be frightened. We shouldn’t be creating division where there is none. Look, we still underfund Indian country from my point of view—and I think both parties have a lot to answer for in that regard—but both parties can be proud of what they’ve done in the past three years. What we need to do is build on that.
One thing that would be truly scary for Indians is if there weren’t friends like you in Congress. What happens when you move on?
There’s never a guarantee, which means you always have to be bringing young leaders along. You need to be educating people. The sad reality, of course, is that probably three quarters of the American Congress probably don’t know a great deal about Indians or tribes. But I can point to people who haven’t known a lot to start off with who have come to be very strong and forceful advocates. We’re developing a list of champions on both sides of the aisle, which is important. We constantly need to be reaching out. Indians need to be very much involved in the local politics of their state. We also need to be educating people where there is not a lot of tribal presence. Most people want to do the right thing, they just don’t know much about tribal sovereignty and tribes. Fortunately, we now have many tribes that have the wherewithal to maintain a constant presence on the Hill.
If Romney is elected and the Ryan budget is enacted, would Indian programs be protected?
I think they would. The real problem in the budget is not on the discretionary side, where most Indian funding is, it’s largely on the nondiscretionary side, and those are areas that need to be brought under control so they don’t wipe out all the things we are able to do on the discretionary side.
Is it too idealistic or unrealistic to ask that legislators always protect Indian funding up front, given the trust responsibility of the U.S. Congress toward Indians?
[Laughs] I think that would be pretty ideal, but every group wants that. It is probably too much to ask. The labor of democracy is educating elected officials and making sure that you put in office people who do the right thing. That’s never-ending. There’s no perfect final answer in democracy.
Has the Romney and Ryan campaign done a good job of reaching out to American Indians?
I think they are trying to. There has been a tribal meeting, and a strong [Native] platform at the GOP convention. I have talked a lot to Representative Ryan about Indian issues because I sit on the Budget Committee. He understands that Indian affairs are a high priority. Ryan also has some tribal connections in Wisconsin. Romney has less of a background…[but] I think he’s very interested in learning. There is nothing in his background that suggests he is going to be hostile to Native American funding.
Ryan’s wife, Janna, has roots in Oklahoma. Do you know the Ryans?
Very well. I serve on his committee and have known him since before he served in Congress. And Janna, I
knew before I served in Congress. Her family is very prominent [in Oklahoma]. My son sits on the governing board of the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics with her dad, Dan Little. He’s an unbelievable civic and state leader in Oklahoma. Her late mom, Prudence, was chairman of the Ethics Committee in Oklahoma. They know a lot about Indian tribes.
Is there going to be a fix of Carcieri v. Salazar?
We’ve gotten it through the House before, but the Senate—my goodness—it’s just ridiculous. The administration has been very helpful, but we’ve had a Democratic Senate that has been unable to do it. And that’s not the fault of Senator [Daniel] Akaka and the Indian Affairs Committee—they’ve done a great job. But it is the fault of the Senate leadership and two Democratic senators in Rhode Island who think the Narragansetts should have a separate legal status than all other tribes. These are complex issues. Most members won’t know about them, but when you sit down and explain it to them, they begin to understand. Tribes have to be assertive, but patient.
I don’t know, but it needs to happen soon. There is going to be an explosion of litigation, and it’s an enormous hindrance to economic development. We have a lot of people who confuse this with gaming; it’s not about that. We have a lot of states and localities that are trying to take advantage. We have some great Democratic and Republican allies, but we also have some terrific Democratic opposition, mostly in the Senate, and not from the relevant committees. They either don’t care, or are just really ill-informed. Rhode Island’s senators [Reed and Whitehouse] are asserting something that has national implications, that is hurting Indians all across America for some petty local dispute, where, honestly, the tribe is in the
right. It was a terrible Supreme Court ruling. And not a left-right division—we lost that case 8–1. It tells me how little the U.S. Supreme Court understands Indian sovereignty. They overturned 80 years worth of precedent of both Democrats and Republicans putting land into trust for tribes. I don’t think that 80 years of work was wrong. I think the Supreme Court made a really stupid decision.
Is a clean Carcieri fix possible this year?
I’m not optimistic. I think the calendar is so difficult, as much as anything else. It’s likely to be stuck in something larger. I think it has been held back as a tool to use in other areas. We didn’t get it in 2010, honestly, because after we passed it in the House, the Senate leadership wanted it tied to an Internet gaming bill. And if they didn’t get that, which they didn’t, they weren’t going to give us Carcieri. And that’s silly. They’re not comparable.
How about the Violence Against Women Act? Tribes had a big victory with the Senate version. The House version, less so.
I agree. I 100 percent support the Senate version. I think in the House, we need to educate some people. The debate has begun to do that. I have had an opportunity to talk to some people who say this would be unconstitutional. It’s not unconstitutional! It’s clearly within Congress’ purview to give tribes the ability to have effective police power and protection of their own territory. I was telling Representative Ron Paul, If you believe in the Constitution, you believe in tribal sovereignty—whether you know it or not—because it’s in there, and it’s been interpreted that way throughout our history.
There are 535 members of Congress, and 534 of them could go on the Sioux Reservation, commit a crime, and not be subjected to local jurisdiction. If I did it, though, I would be, because I’m an Indian. We trust tribes to have jurisdiction over Native Americans. As long as you give people the right to appeal, they ought to be subject to tribal jurisdiction.… Most American communities have local jurisdiction; Native Americans do not. It’s not right. I will vote with the Democrats on this if an amendment or recommit is offered. I hope we can get it done this year.
When you talk about the need for bipartisanship on Indian issues, I can’t help but think about your recent trade bill that would have opened tribal trading with Turkey. Some Republicans and many Democrats voted against you on that. Was that disappointing?
It was. We got 58 percent of the vote, but we needed two thirds. I know what brought the trade bill down, and it had nothing to do with Indians. It was all playing into Greek and Armenian vs. Turkish politics, which had nothing to do with the bill. I said, “Hey, let’s change the bill. If there’s Greek and Armenian companies who want to work with Indian country, let’s do it.” The Turks were fine with that…[but House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi and a number of people who have their constituencies [to listen to] wouldn’t go for it. To be fair, I do understand that they have their issues, and their issues deserve discussion, but they don’t need to be dealt with at the expense of Native Americans.
Are you going to try again?
Yes, absolutely. Anything that encourages the injection of capital into Indian reservation, I am going to push for.