The mood was anxious and thoughtful at this year’s National Indian Gaining Association Legislative Session held January 31 to February 1 on Capitol Hill. As expected, the conversation was dominated by the Abramoff scandal and United States Senate hearings on off-reservation gaming.
A development that was not anticipated, however, was the call by several Republican members of Congress to close the so-called campaign giving “loophole” of Indian tribes. Each category of person or organization, such as individual or corporation, has a set ceiling on campaign contributions. Tribes, because of their unique relationship to the federal government as sovereign nations, have historically had no limits to their total political giving.
One of the arguments being cited as a reason to limit tribes’ ability to make political donations is that States, which are also sovereign, “Do not lobby Congress.” Those parties are failing to mention that each states’ respective members of the House of Representatives serve that purpose on their behalf.
Tribes, which are also sovereign, are being compelled to lobby from the outside for their interests since they do not have voting membership of Congress to lobby for their interests from within. State governments and their majority non-Indian constituents are often times at odds with the tribes and tribal constituents that reside within the state’s boundaries.
During the 1993-94 election cycle, tribal political contributions totalled only $700,000. Much has changed in the tribal political arena since then, and the totals for reported political giving for the years 2003-04 was $8.6 million. (Source: Center for Responsive Politics) Gaming revenues have provided tribes with the financial means to exercise more political clout.
Tribes must petition Congress for appropriations on an annual basis and must lobby their positions on legislation that affects the daily lives of Indian people nationwide, so “More political clout is supposed to be the goal,” said Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. “But instead of positive press about increased tribal political savvy, the news is dominated by Abramoff.”
Jack Abramoff provides a negative example of how some tribes have been taken advantage of in their desire to find solutions to decades of being outsiders to the American political system. Capitol Hill insiders are calling Congressional efforts to impose new limits on Indian tribal political giving a “fast moving train.” This movement to impose contribution limits on tribes has arguably been a Republican response to the fallout of the Abramoff debacle.
Although tribes give to the coffers of both political parties, more money has been given to Democrats (61%) over Republicans (39%). (Source: Center for Responsive Politics) On the first day of the NIGA Session, USA Today featured the cover story: “Tribes’ political giving targeted, GOP bill would close donations loophole.” Abramoff has thrust tribes into the media spotlight, and it is anticipated that the stories in major and regional media will continue into the foreseeable future.
The question then becomes, how will tribes respond? Although only a handful of tribes were actually involved with Abramoff, all tribes will be affected. The current scandal has the potential to affect the very balance of power in Congress during the 2006 elections, tipping majority rule of the House and Senate to the Democrats. Indian tribal issues, which are normally relegated to the halls of Congress, have become fodder for media debate. As such, tribes have become a part of everyday conversation among average Americans.
This trend is expected to continue until at least the end of the 2006 election cycle. Republicans are clearly paying for their close proximity to Abramoff and associates, as this scandal has just been the last item on a laundry list of ethics questions that have been raised concerning favor and power brokering in Washington, DC. All of the speakers at the NIGA Legislative Day, February 1, addressed the concerns common to all tribes present. Most spoke directly to the Abramoff scandal and the expected lobbying reforms.
Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) said, “If we need more transparency in the process, for example, so be it. As long as we respect the tribes’ sovereignty in the process.” He stressed that “Indian gaming is the key engine for economic growth for Indian country and the surrounding areas.” Retired Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell said, “I don’t remember a time more challenging than it is right now for Indian people…This guy (Abramoff) did a lot of damage.” He added, “Senators are well aware that tribes have been victimized,” echoing what many tribal leaders were saying as they returned from one-on-one meetings with members of Congress.
Many tribes were concerned about what they would find when they got to DC, but were reporting that their meetings “had gone very well,” and that it was clear that members of Congress were not blaming the tribes for the ethics and lobbying scandal. Nighthorse Campbell talked about traditional ways versus modern realities. He said, “There is this old tradition where you put your blanket over your head to show contempt for the decisions being made…However, we can’t do that now…Whether you agree with the decision or not,” he stressed, “You’ve got to hang in there. You’ve got to have a voice.” He continued, “We need to come back here more, not less…People are energized. They know that this is a crucial time for Indian people.”