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Tribal political donations under scrutiny in Washington

With the Jack Abramoff scandal overshadowing tribes and their efforts in Washington, D.C., the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will be taking on a controversial issue next week.

The committee has scheduled an oversight hearing on tribes and Federal Election Campaign Act. It is believed to be the first time the panel has looked into tribes and the contributions they make to federal candidates and politicians.

Thanks largely to Indian gaming and the economic development it has created, tribes have been giving plenty. According to PoliticalMoneyLine, a website that tracks money in politics, tribes have donated $25 million in just the past five years.

The big sums have not gone unnoticed as the Abramoff drama has unfolded. According to figures published in USA Today, three of the top 10 tribal donors in 2004 -- the year the scandal broke -- were clients of the disgraced lobbyist.

The connection has anti-Indian groups, conservatives and some Republicans ready to pounce on tribes and even on Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee and the author of the most recent campaign finance reform act. The critics characterize the special status of tribal sovereigns as a "loophole" that needs to be closed in order to place limits on the amounts tribes can give to politicians.

When a writer for the conservative Human Events publication asked McCain about the issue, "he said, 'Because tribes are sovereign entities. They are treated on a government-to-government relationship, and we're looking at that whole issue.'"

According to the article, published online yesterday, a proposal to impose limits on tribes was prepared in 2001 as Congress was considering a bill to amend the Federal Election Campaign Act. The bill, which eventually became law despite Republican opposition, is also known as "McCain-Feingold" -- named after McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), its sponsors.

The tribal proposal, however, "died" in the House Rules Committee under its chairman, Rep. David Dreier (R-California), Human Events reported. But with the Abramoff scandal consuming Washington, Dreier is now seeking to close the loophole in a GOP-backed measure that will be unveiled this week, USA Today reported.

The negative climate has tribes and their advocates crying foul. "Neither Indian tribes nor casinos are the problem," Tex Hall, the past president of the National Congress of American Indians wrote in a column published in The San Francisco Chronicle. "If you listened to our critics, you'd think that corruption in Washington was a phenomenon that began in 1988, after Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

But tribal advocates agree that lobbying reforms are almost certain to pass this year. "The timing is there, the terrain is there," Tom Rodgers, a Washington lobbyist and member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, said at the Western Indian Gaming Conference earlier this month.

What's at stake is the status that tribal governments and their enterprises have under the Federal Election Campaign Act. In the past five years, the Federal Elections Commission, the agency that administers and enforces FECA, has issued three major opinions on the matter.

In January 2000, the FEC determined that tribes are considered "persons" under the law. At the same time, they are not "individuals," a distinction opinion allows tribes to contribute unlimited total amounts to candidates and committees.

In May 2000, the FEC followed up with an opinion that clarified the distinction and said tribes could contribute beyond the limit imposed on "individuals."

Finally, in March 2005, the FEC issued an opinion that ensured tribes could continue making political donations even if they have contracts with the federal government. Campaign finance law normally bars such donations but the FEC said it would treat each tribe's situation on a case-by-case basis.

The March 2005 opinion has drawn some attention because it was issued for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, one of Abramoff's former clients and a top 10 donor in 2004. The FEC members and staff were split on whether the tribe could make unlimited donations despite having federal contracts but ended up voting 4-2 in favor of the tribe.

Next week's hearing takes place Wednesday, February 8. A witness list has not yet been made public.

Human Events Article:
McCain's Law Preserved Loophole for Tribal Contributions (Human Events Online January 29, 2006)

Federal Elections Commission Opinions:
Advisory Opinion 1999-32 (January 28, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2000-05 (May 15, 2000) | Advisory Opinion 2005-01 (March 14, 2005)

More Advisory Opinion 2005-01 Documents:
Advisory Opinion Draft A and Draft B | Tribe's Request for Advisory Opinion

Relevant Links:
PoliticalMoneyLine -
Center for Responsive Politics -