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Roll Call

McCain, Witnesses Weigh ’Indian Loophole’ Fix

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.

Thurber, sounding appropriately professorial, also urged Congress to take up earmark reform — a pet project of McCain’s — not just in appropriations bills but also in such measures as tax, highway and energy bills. “I think some Members don’t realize they’re standing on the gallows,” Thurber said about the current environment.

On the topic of tribal campaign contributions, Thurber offered several proposals that, in his words, would make it easier to follow the money, including greater transparency in the source of the funds, but he stopped short of recommending an aggregate limit on what tribes can give.

FEC Chairman Michael Toner told the committee that his commission would greatly benefit from “a clear Congressional declaration” on how to apply campaign finance laws to Indian tribes, which he called “unique” in the regulatory scheme.

Toner also said that requiring tribes to set up PACs would make it easier to track the sources and nature of donations, but Allen sharply criticized that idea , saying that tribes would not oppose registering an identification number with the FEC but should not have to establish actual PACs.

Lobbyists for Indian tribes said they appreciated the comments and questions from Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Johnson said that in the Abramoff scandal, very few tribes were involved even indirectly in that matter, and to the degree that they were, they were victims. Inouye said the current system seemed to be “sufficiently transparent.”

At one point, continuing off topic, McCain told Toner, “I have to take a cheap shot here,” and criticized the FEC for its implementation of his Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, saying the courts ruled that 13 of the 15 FEC regulations under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law were unconstitutional.

“I hope that you will do better next time,” McCain told Toner.

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