WASHINGTON - For a long time, tribes didn't have the resources to do much
one way or the other on the Washington lobbying circuit.
Gaming changed that, and in time too the lay of the political landscape has
given Indian votes a power beyond their numbers. As tribes allocated
resources for political lobbying, they found they could work Capitol Hill
and the White House for influence.
Just as corporations and interests groups always have, said W. Ron Allen,
chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. "They all do it."
But they don't all do it with equal skill. And in judging what lobbyists
have to offer, tribes don't all have equal experience or knowledge,
especially as to the meaning of political "access" - what it means, who has
it, how it works. Without knowing all of that cold, determining a fair
price for something as nebulous as "access" is tough. And that uncertainty
may expose tribes to lobbyists who are mainly out for big fees, "gouging to
the point of disgust ... The irony of it is that it's the Republicans."
Historically, Republicans have been quick to accuse Democrats of benefiting
from high tribal lobbying payments, Allen said.
Allen spoke during an interview on the Washington scandal involving
registered lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his colleague in public relations,
Michael Scanlon. Until recently, Abramoff in particular was known for
"access" to the Republican Party's higher echelons. The two are alleged to
have received a total $66 million from six tribes over three years. In
addition, a total of $21 million allegedly passed between supposed
organizations structured and controlled by them, in payments the Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs calls sub rosa (made in confidence).
Although more will be known as the committee proceeds with hearings and a
grand jury investigation continues, the evidence now available strongly
suggests that Abramoff and Scanlon sometimes played on tribal fears of
competition from other gaming tribes and state-run gaming operations, such
as horse racing.
"It is disappointing to me that some of our sister tribes would get out
there ... for themselves." Lobbying in Washington is best done with all
tribes in mind, Allen said.
He added that tribal sovereignty has to be respected - the tribal authority
to make decisions is unquestioned. But as a past president of the National
Congress of American Indians and the current treasurer, he said NCAI is on
the lookout for forums that will help tribes in terms of "working the D.C.
circuit in a more effective way" - as lobbyists, corporations and interest
groups have been doing for decades.
"So I'm disappointed ... but some good can come of this."
It will come from tribal memberships, he said. It should not come from
"I fear the assumption of some members of Congress that all tribes are
going to make these kinds of choices, that we're all subject to the silver
tongues of these lobbyists."
On the other hand, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs should "continue
to shine a light."
Allen, whose own small tribe in Washington state began a rise to prosperity
with a single fireworks stand, spoke with special feeling for the Tigua in
Texas. The small Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe landed in scandal for trying
to prosper on a casino in an anti-gaming state. "That's all they were
looking for, an opportunity."