Indian Tribes Face Campaign Donation Restrictions

The proliferation of American Indian casinos has given tribes a seat at the political table as never before and raised questions about their campaign donations.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Wednesday he was considering whether tribes should be required to form political committees and report their campaign donations.

The influence-peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff has put a spotlight on Indian donations. Abramoff and a partner billed six tribes with casinos for $80 million between 2001 and 2004 and directed tribes to give thousands of dollars to campaigns.

Abramoff has pleaded guilty to charges related to the investigation.

In many cases involving Abramoff, most tribal members were unaware of what was happening to their money, McCain said, R-Ariz., at a committee hearing. Transparency could help tribes as well as others concerned about influence in politics, he said.

"I would like any tribal member to be able to call the (Federal Election Commission) and find out exactly what the tribe was doing," McCain said.

But Ron Allen, treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, said regulations could take away what little power Indians have accumulated in Washington.

"If we are so influential, why are we losing ground in health care? Why are we losing ground in education?" Allen asked. "The Abramoff issue is a scandal. ... We don't want to be tainted or disenfranchised."

Indian money accounted less than half of 1 percent of the campaign contributions made in 2004, said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.

Still, tribes have emerged as a growing campaign finance power. They gave $7.2 million in campaign donations in the 2004 election cycle, compared with almost nothing 14 years ago.

Almost all of that money came from tribes with casinos. Yet unlike corporations, which are subject to limits, tribes can give hundreds of thousands of dollars, with the money coming directly from their treasuries.

Campaign finance advocates agreed that tribes, which are sovereign governments, have special concerns. They suggested requiring tribes to register with the FEC and report the source of their campaign contributions.

"Indian tribes have become a political force, and they have to be looked at that way with regard to political contributions," said Larry Noble, executive director of the campaign finance watchdog, Center for Responsive Politics.