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Indian Tribes Win the Jackpot in Campaign Finance

March 18, 2002|FRED DICKEY, Fred Dickey is a journalist in Southern California who has written extensively on this issue. Copyright, Los Angeles Times


Voters hoping for federal campaign finance reform need to be leery of two groups of politicians: those opposing reform and those favoring it. Those pushing for greater fairness in elections mainly want it for the other guy.

John McCain comes to mind. An icon of rectitude to those who follow him on cleaning up elections, he is also the main protector of one of the most voracious buyers of congressional influence: the casino-operating Indian tribes. Why? One possibility: In 2000 he received $42,900 from gambling tribes--almost twice that of the next-highest recipient--while serving as chair of the Indian Affairs Committee in the Senate.

Political influence of the tribes nationwide has grown enormously since casino doors were opened wide by the Cabazon court case in 1987 and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

In May 2000, the Federal Election Commission ruled that tribes are limited to contributions of $1,000 per candidate per election--which seems like a fair limit on "hard money," i.e. money that can be given to individual candidates. But the FEC, in a ruling that makes one want to seek logic therapy for bureaucrats, also did not impose a ceiling on how much the tribes could give.

That means that every tribe in the U.S.--and there are 556 of them--can give $1,000 to every candidate for all 535 House and Senate seats. For two-candidate races in the general election, for example, that adds up to more than $1 million per tribe. The tribes' combined contribution power is almost $600 million.

That is a hammer no sensible politician who might think of opposing the tribes would want to be hit with. If, for example, a lawmaker voted against gambling interests, a large group of tribes could combine to drown his or her career in a river of cash.

Under the "reform" legislation that is expected to gain final passage this week, that rule will remain in place, except that the $1,000-per-candidate amount will double to $2,000.

Campaign finance reform was promoted to honestly address unfairness in campaign spending so that no special interest could "buy" legislative favor. Today there are few special interests richer than the gambling tribes. They have spread casinos across the nation that generate an estimated $12 billion annually. And they have a great motive to spend wildly to influence lawmakers because the tax-free monopolies many enjoy and the regulations under which they operate depend on favors from Congress.

The rules on tribes are different from those on groups such as Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Assn., which organize political action committees dependent on personal donations from constituents under tight regulations. Tribes, however, can fall back on their treasury for contributions. Some of that money can originate from federal funds channeled to them. In other words, they can convert tax dollars to political contributions. But the serious money comes from casino profits. This means that individuals and groups seeking to oppose the expansion of casinos must do so with one hand tied by laws that severely limit what they can spend.

California now has 46 casinos and 16 on the way. Nationally, there are 289. During the 1994 election cycle, gambling tribes gave more than $600,000 to federal candidates and political parties. In 1996 they gave close to $2 million and during 2000 nearly $3 million.

Tribes also are increasing pressure to annex urban land to reservations to locate new casinos closer to the hubs of cities. Throughout California, disputes are breaking out as counties and citizens living close to reservations protest the environmental and infrastructure strains caused by high-traffic casinos. But Congress has made it the law that the tribes cannot be sued or held accountable for damages.

Recently, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer told the National Congress of American Indians that, in view of some recent court cases that have gone against the tribes, their best course of action would be to seek legislative help from Congress.

Breyer had it right. If tribes want to continue with the under-regulated, tax-exempt ka-ching machines that casinos represent, it will mean bending Congress in their favor, and money will always make that happen.

If those who would oppose them are handicapped by provisions ignored by the proposed campaign finance reform, then those opponents will have the same chance of prevailing as they have of winning a slot machine jackpot.

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