As part of his ongoing inquiry into how Washington should be reformed after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) held the second hearing in a week that covered potential changes in the rules governing Indian country.
Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which McCain chairs, focused on whether Congress should take up legislation to close a “loophole” for Indian tribes in current campaign finance law.
However, the hearing was perhaps most notable for addressing other subjects far afield from Indian affairs: lobbying and earmark reform, Congressional ethics and restoring public trust in government after last month’s guilty plea by former lobbyist Abramoff. Abramoff first came under the committee’s spotlight over excessive lobbying fees he charged American Indian tribes.
Ron Allen, treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, said in his testimony that tribes see it as a lobbying scandal and “not one about anything the tribes have done wrong.” That message was similar to what many tribes articulated after an Indian Affairs hearing last week at which McCain’s panel focused on amending the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the law that governs tribal-run gambling enterprises. The majority of tribes oppose amending IGRA.
Allen said his group worries that the Abramoff scandal could leave tribes “disenfranchised” from the Congressional process.
Under current law and Federal Election Commission regulations, tribes are treated as “persons” and cannot give more money to candidates in an election cycle than what is permitted by other individuals. However, unlike individuals, tribes are not limited in how much they can give in the aggregate to federal candidates or party committees. Tribes, in theory, could donate the maximum of $2,100 to every single Member of Congress. Equally significant, tribes, unlike the political action committees of corporations and unions, may make these donations from tribal funds.
But unlike the issue of IGRA reform, on which McCain said he wanted to move legislation in the coming weeks, the chairman did not indicate a timetable for legislation on Indian campaign finance reforms. Nor did he indicate strongly whether he believes that changes to the law are even warranted. He did say he intended to “ask hard questions” in the coming days.
McCain, who testified later in the day at a Rules and Administration Committee hearing on lobbying reform, immediately tied his own hearing’s agenda to the Abramoff scandal, opening with comments that urged the Senate to adopt lobbying reforms.
By the end of the Indian Affairs hearing, the discussion had morphed into a wide-ranging discussion between McCain; James Thurber, a professor of lobbying and campaign studies at American University; and Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. The discussion veered from earmark and lobbying reform to the need for new restrictions on 527 political groups.
McCain said that Congress should take action to dispel the “cloud that exists” in Americans’ minds about the political process to say “we’ve removed this cloud.”
When it comes to scandal in Washington, D.C., Thurber told McCain: “You’re the problem, Senator — not you personally,” but rather Members of Congress and staffers who contribute to a culture in which government officials solicit campaign contributions and far-flung trips or fancy meals paid for by lobbyists.
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