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Special interest legislation will hurt Mississippi

You would think that with everything going on — a disputed election, a pandemic, rising unemployment claims and skyrocketing debt — Congress would have clear priorities once lawmakers returned to Washington, D.C. Think again. Instead of coming to the table to craft a targeted and responsible COVID relief package, they passed a special-interest bill that overrides federal policy regarding Indian Tribe recognition. 

Called the “Lumbee Recognition Act,” the bill will cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion over the next four years as it extends federal benefits to a group that calls itself the Lumbee Indians. It passed on a voice vote, which means you can’t really see how your Congressman voted. At stake are hundreds of millions in federal aid and a significant degree of tribal sovereignty — including rights to potentially operate casinos on tribal land.

The Lumbee claim they are an American Indian tribe. But the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) seems to have its doubts. Likewise, in 1991 the director of the Office of Tribal Services testified that “the Lumbee have not documented their descent from a historic tribe.”

The BIA and other skeptics may change their minds if the Lumbees go through the Department of Interior’s formal review process for determining which groups receive federal recognition and benefits. Instead, the group is attempting to avoid this federally-designated rulemaking process.

The Lumbee Recognition Act is just the kind of bill that gets passed when no one is watching. The act is not a new idea. Every other year or so, its supporters have tried to get it through. In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, recognizing the Lumbee as “Indians,” but not extending federal benefits to them. In 2010, with the Obama administration’s support, a Lumbee recognition bill also passed the U.S. House. It died in the Senate over concerns that the real issue was about being able to open a casino on Lumbee land. 

Mississippi taxpayers will lose if Congress chooses to recognize the Lumbees without the thorough review that’s required. With federal recognition comes a wealth of healthcare, education, job training and other benefits. The precedent the bill sets is also bad. Why have a process for determining tribal recognition at all if Congress can override it through special-interest legislation? 

But at bottom is the debate over whether biology — in this case, ancestry — is determined by subjective beliefs and political maneuvering or whether an objective, transparent review should decide the matter. If there is strong evidence that the Lumbee deserve federal recognition, Congress should hold hearings and revise the acknowledgment process to make it fair for every group seeking formal status. If there’s a problem with how the Office of Federal Acknowledgement is doing things, fix the process for everyone. However, the process should start with the Lumbees cooperating and going through the government’s official review process.

The other thing to consider is that if Congress is allowed to evade the rulemaking process in this case of questionable ancestry, what is to prevent them from doing so in other cases? Recall that federal recognition also awards “Indian preference” in hiring and contracts. If we allow such preferences to be granted by political whim, it makes a mockery of the entire preference system, which is supposed to be rooted in a desire to rectify longstanding social injustices. Once this preference system becomes merely transactional, it loses all moral authority, akin to purchasing indulgences: very valuable, lucrative indulgences.

The Lumbee have claimed ancestry to at least four separate, unrelated tribes over the years. Several other tribes, including the Mississippi Choctaw Indians, oppose the Lumbee Recognition Act. With all that’s at stake, Mississippi taxpayers should oppose it too.

Mississippi’s need for COVID relief isn’t going away. The state’s COVID infection numbers continue to rise as funding gets thinner and thinner. How Congress chooses to spend our money — and its time — isn’t just politics. It will affect the quality of life for all Mississippians. 

In the coming days, our U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith need to do everything they can to root out waste, fraud, and abuse and ensure that every dollar Congress spends addresses the concerns of our working families and businesses. There’s too much on the line to kowtow to special interests.

Dr. Jameson Taylor is senior vice president for policy at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.