Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Just pick a number, lawmakers were told by both sides looking to Congress to resolve a lawsuit over billions of dollars in federal royalties that American Indians say they are owed.
Estimates of the money owed for unpaid royalties on oil, gas, timber and other resources from Indian lands range from half a billion dollars to $27.5 billion, a panel of negotiators and tribal leaders told Senate and House members last week, the Associated Press reported.
Many people with a stake in the bitter class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department are now convinced that only Congress can settle it equitably, even if that means picking an arbitrary number.
"One number's as good as another?" asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs.
"Ultimately, this is an arbitrary solution. There is no right number," mediator John Bickerman said at a joint hearing of McCain's committee and the House Resources Committee. No one disputes that the government has done a poor job handling the Indian trust funds, he said.
Congress created the federal trust to handle Indian royalties in 1887. It demanded an accounting in 1994, and two years later Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet tribe and others filed suit when the accounting was not done.
Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), the House committee's chairman, said it would take a miracle for either side to propose an acceptable number. "If we don't do this, the case will drag through the courts as it has dragged on for the last 10 years," he said.
-- Christopher Lee