Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Rep Tom Cole Opposes Change In Indian Contributions by Chris Casteel
WASHINGTON - Rep. Tom Cole, determined that American Indian tribes not be made "scapegoats" in the lobbying scandal that has roiled Congress, is trying to head off any attempt to change the campaign contribution rules for tribes.
Cole (R-Moore) is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and has been protective of Indian interests since he came to Congress in 2003.
He is now adamant that members of Congress not try to limit the participation of Indian tribes in the political process because a few were represented by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
He said he met with top House leaders about the issue and sent a letter to all his House colleagues opposing new restrictions.
Cole said he will do everything in his power to prevent new limits on tribal political contributions, even if it means bucking his party's leadership.
"I don't intend for Indians to be the scapegoat for what Jack Abramoff and (associate) Michael Scanlon did," Cole said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, held a hearing on the issue this month, soliciting opinions from campaign finance experts and a national Indian organization.
"I understand that there is a widespread fear in Indian country of losing a seat at the political table," McCain said in a prepared statement.
"Tribes fear that just as they are beginning to more fully participate in the political process through campaign contributions, opposing interests have proposed reforms that could effectively exclude them.
"I understand these concerns, but feel it is appropriate to examine how and why tribes, which truly are unique entities, are treated the way they are under the Federal Election Campaign Act, and whether the law should be changed."
It has only been in recent years that some tribes, flush with casino gaming money, have contributed significant amounts of money.
Oklahoma tribes, even those with casinos, have not, for the most part, been among those making large donations.
Ron Allen, treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, said tribes gave $8.6 million in the 2004 election cycle, which he said was 0.3 percent of the money donated to federal campaigns. By comparison, he said, the real estate industry gave $95 million and lawyers and law firms gave more than $182 million.
Lawrence Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money, told McCain's committee tribes donated about $27 million between 1989 and 2006. Of that, he said, only about $130,000 was from tribes without casinos.
Federal election rules are complex, and can be especially so for tribes.
The Federal Election Commission has essentially crafted rules that define a tribe as a "person," thereby limiting them to the same contribution amounts that an individual can make to a campaign -- currently $2,100 per election to a federal candidate; $5,000 per year to a political action committee; $10,000 a year to a state party's federal account; and $26,700 to national parties.
However, tribes are not subject to the aggregate contributions limit that restricts individuals to giving $101,400 in a two-year election cycle to candidates and committees.
News reports and an investigation by McCain's committee revealed that some tribes that were clients of Abramoff were donating thousands of dollars to dozens of lawmakers and to political action committees controlled by lawmakers.
Abramoff pleaded guilty last month to federal charges that included defrauding tribal members he represented. Since the scandal broke, many lawmakers have been giving to charity money they received from the tribes Abramoff represented.
The fact tribes don't have an aggregate limit on their donations and don't have to file contribution reports with the Federal Election Commission has been called by some a "tribal loophole."
However, individuals who donate money to candidates, political action committees or political parties also don't have to file reports. Rather, the donations are reported by the candidates and committees.
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, told McCain's committee the unlimited contributions and lack of reporting requirements "combine to make Indian tribes fertile ground for raising campaign cash by political parties and candidates."
Cole thinks it is "appropriate" that tribes have no aggregate limit on their donations
This article appears in The Oklahoman
Tuesday, February 21, 2006