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Editorial: Pombo's RIGHT Act fails to live up to its name

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California) couldn't have picked a worse title for his bill to restrict off-reservation gaming. It just made his loss on the House floor yesterday even more embarrassing.

Pombo, the chairman of the House Resources Committee, was already out on a limb when he pushed forward his measure to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Tribes nationwide were bound to have problems with any attempts to restrict the growth of their $23 billion casino industry.

But when he called it the Restricting Indian Gaming to Homelands of Tribes (RIGHT) Act and slapped a "bipartisan" label on it, he was only asking for more trouble. After all, all of the United States, at one point was considered Indian Country.

And no Democrat with close ties to tribes would risk voting for it unless he or she were confident the votes and campaign contributions would continue to pour in.

Sure enough, yesterday's roll call bore out those realities. Only 39 Democrats voted in favor of H.R.4893, not enough to gain the required two-thirds margin need to pass the bill under "suspension."

More telling were the 16 Republicans who voted no. They included Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Arizona), whose district includes parts of the Navajo Nation, which opposed the bill.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, also voted no. So did Rep. Charles Pickering (R-Mississippi), acting on opposition from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, whose off-reservation casino would be imperiled by the bill.

Despite the defeat, Pombo was correct to note that a clear majority in the Republican-controlled chamber thought the RIGHT Act was all right. The vote underscores the reality that Indian gaming, in the wake of the Abramoff scandal and other controversies, isn't exactly welcome on Capitol Hill these days. Tribes can't be celebrating right now.

The political winds may shift again but Pombo also noted that proponents of Indian gaming have muddied the record by repeatedly citing the approval of just three off-reservation casinos since 1988.

That figure is technically correct but dozens more casinos have been approved pursuant to other exceptions in IGRA. Back in March 2005, Indianz.Com put the number around 38, a figure Pombo has touted repeatedly.

At the same time, Pombo and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), whose IGRA amendments face even more opposition, have continued to ignore the Oklahoma exception that has been abused by at least one tribe in the state. Pombo barely touched the issue and McCain's bark turned out to be no bite when he unveiled his measure.

As a result, neither proposal addresses the fact that the Chickasaw Nation rapidly expanded its gaming empire in eastern Oklahoma by exploiting and bypassing IGRA altogether. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, in some cases, enabled the law-skirting and, in other cases, simply looked the other way.

Success in Indian Country is not to be discouraged but when the BIA can't produce the paperwork behind the land-into-trust applications in question, it's definitely a problem. That's why the tribe has hired Aurene Martin, a former BIA official, to make the problem go away.

And when the BIA starts punishing other tribes -- mainly small tribes in eastern Oklahoma and those in the western part of the state -- it becomes unfair for those who are struggling to become successful.

Pombo and McCain can start to make real reforms by imposing firm deadlines on land-into-trust applications. Right now, the BIA can take as long as its wants with absolutely no accountability for inaction.

If it takes 19 years for someone to get an answer on an application, it's up to Pombo and McCain to focus their proposals in areas of great need. They might see more tribes lining up to support their ideas if they do.

Pombo IGRA Bill:
H.R.4893 [As Passed by Committee] | H.R.4893 [As Introduced] | MP3: House Resources Committee Debate | Substitute | Explanation

McCain IGRA Bill:
S.2078 | Senate Indian Affairs Committee Report

National Indian Gaming Association Resolutions:
Section 20 | IGRA Amendments

Relevant Links:
National Indian Gaming Commission -
National Indian Gaming Association -