Advising the Advisor to the President: My Experience with Federal Governmental Advisory Committees

By: Stephanie Conduff | Law Clerk | stephanie.conduff@procopio.com
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner | ted.griswold@procopio.com

There are experiences in life that you have to be there to believe. So often in Indian Country, we recount the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS) failures without any appreciation of the people who create these organizational structures and buildings in Washington DC and all over the United States.

Two of the major players that you read about in Congressional Testimony, court filings and national media headlines are:

  • Kevin Washburn – Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs for the US Department of the Interior
  • Yvette Roubideaux – Acting Director, Indian Health Service

This time last week, I worked side-by-side with the DOI Self-Governance Advisory Committee and the Indian Health Service (IHS) Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Committee to participate in the consultation process between tribal leaders and the federal government. They are empowered with the task of advising both Secretary Washburn and Dr. Roubideaux on a myriad of multifaceted policy topics including advanced appropriations, contract support costs, Ebola preparedness, third-party collections and grants for school boards. In turn, Secretary Washburn and Dr. Roubideaux advise the President.

These two aren’t figureheads. They are engaging and passionate leaders. Both confident, respectful and open to learning. They exemplify the spirit of consultation and what a government-to-government relationship should look like; in this room one could imagine observing the G8 Summit. This work group feels more like a peer group than a representational sampling of sovereigns. Perhaps it is because we are all related – by definition a tribe is a family of families. I realize that I am kinfolk to at least three people in the room before lunch. Governance changes when you have to answer to the taxpayers and to Great Aunt Pearl on Sunday. Both want answers.

I leave day two especially thankful policy work groups like this exist to ensure the mundane (think FY 2016 appropriations) are in line and the urgent (imagine Ebola isolation units at your local IHS facility) are anticipated. It is the work of these leaders in Indian Country that we are protected, represented and heard by the federal decision makers on the most important issues facing our families, neighbors and communities.

This was true consultation – one that can’t be codified by law. It can only be done out of genuine respect for self-governance and by a true statesman (or stateswoman). It’s refreshing to see the head of these agencies – sitting in a circle – with tribal leadership. They joke. They laugh. They are serious, focused and respectful. This wasn’t just a stop on a busy agenda of meetings but a place where a team of advisors met to hold each other accountable and generate solutions to Indian Country’s top problems.

Stephanie Conduff is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at ted.griswold@procopio.com and 619.515.3277.