Opening up resources, cutting bureaucracy and defending contracting privileges for Alaska Native companies are among the priorities for U.S. Rep. Don Young as he wields a chairman's gavel for the first time since his party lost the majority in 2006.
Young, elected in November to his 20th term representing Alaska and the second-most senior Republican in the House, was named chairman of a newly formed subcommittee for Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. Indian and Alaska Native issues previously had been handled by the full Natural Resources Committee.
Young was last a chairman in the 109th Congress, when he led the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Democratic sweep in 2006 that led to control of both houses of Congress put Young back in the minority, and a federal investigation forced Young to step down as ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee after the 2008 elections.
With the investigation now closed and no charges filed, and his party holding its largest advantage in the House in 62 years, Young once again has the opportunity to exert influence.
"I'm going to try to make the American Indian come farther than they have as far as economic development and taking care of their own lot," he said.
The kind of earmarking for which Young earned national notoriety -- most notably the infamous "Bridges to Nowhere" -- is likely a thing of the past with deficit reduction the top priority of the new House majority and earmarking bans approved by the Republicans in both houses.
"It's going to be hard," he said. "There's no doubt about that. We have to face up to those facts. There is a trust relationship with Alaska Natives and American Indians that Congress has responsibility to implement existing law and fund them. There are better ways to spend the total budget at the (Bureau of Indian Affairs)."
Young said his responsibilities for oversight of the BIA will include an examination of the administrative overhead at the agency and how its budget could be redeployed because of tight fiscal times.
"It's very heavily loaded with bureaucracy," Young said of BIA. "I'm going to find out how many BIA workers we have now versus before the (Indian) Self-Determination Act."
The Self-Determination Act was passed in 1975 and was intended to allow tribes to assume control of services and programs funded through the departments of Interior and Health and Human Services.
"The agency has in fact grown," Young said. "I'm saying, 'no.' That money being spent needs to go to the tribes and the organizations that are doing the work. I think instead of cutting we can redistribute the dollars and still have adequate funding. That's what I'm going to attempt to do. It's a huge morass."
Young, a constant crusader against what he calls overbearing regulations, plans to combine his battle against over-regulation with an opportunity to open up lands given by Congress to the village of Kaktovik on the Beaufort Sea.
Kaktovik was given 90,000 acres by Congress for developing "social and economic well being" but cannot tap the land because it is surrounded by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.
Young, who has also introduced legislation to open up ANWR as part of a comprehensive energy plan, said it is "unfair," "wrong" and "inappropriate" to continue to deny Kaktovik the right to access its resources.
"We gave them those lands," Young said. "How can you improve your economic or social well being if you're precluded from developing your resources if you wish to do so?"
Young, who has only gotten his efforts on ANWR out of the House and Senate once (it was vetoed by President Bill Clinton in 1995), said he expects the rising price of gasoline could change the political climate. Public polling shows Americans still favor domestic energy production even in the wake of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I think I'll have a better chance when the price of gas goes up, and it's going to go up," Young said. "We'll see what the Senate will do. I'd challenge the president to veto it and he probably would. But there is an election year coming up and the price of gasoline could change things quickly. We can do it safely and the public knows that."
Young also plans to use his chairmanship to defend Alaska Native companies' contracting preferences under the Small Business Administration's 8(a) certification program.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced legislation in the last Congress to remove advantages currently enjoyed by Alaska Native companies that have no cap on amount, can be sole-source contracts and allow unlimited subsidiaries of ANCs to qualify for the program.
Young said he would support new proposals for 8(a) brought forth by the SBA but would vigorously fight any effort like McCaskill's.
"It's a classic example of when the Native community is successful, people try to tear it down," Young said. "One of the reasons I'm chairman of this committee, I'm going to make sure the SBA regulations can be adopted, but I'm not going to allow any legislation that's detrimental. I'm going to watch this issue very closely.
"My job is to help the people I represent and I'm going to do that."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.
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