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Campbell calls for more Capitol Hill presence

WASHINGTON -- Ben Nighthorse Campbell appeared at a Capitol Hill reception
Feb. 1 and wasted no time in demonstrating why the Senate misses its former
Indian member. Speaking from a breadth of political experience that spanned
more than 20 years before his retirement from Congress in 2005, "I don't
remember a time when it was more challenging for Indian people," Campbell
said.

The challenge is due to a federal budget deficit of $368 billion, he added.
As President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress have sought to
shrink the deficit, they have proposed to freeze discretionary spending
across federal departments. But discretionary spending represents a small
part of overall federal spending; entitlement spending is a much larger
percentage of the budget -- and it can't be readily curtailed because it is
protected by law and governs medical care, various benefit payments and
other national priorities.

Because the money for many tribal priorities comes from discretionary
accounts, tribal leaders are concerned that an across-the-board budget
freeze (if it stands up once the dust has settled on the always contentious
budget process) will affect Indian priorities disproportionately. The
aggravation of tribal leaders over diminished funding for services has been
palpable in recent years, and Campbell made no attempt to minimize it.

But as probably no one now in Congress could, he drew on Native tradition
to highlight the point he was making in present time. Noting that Indians
of the past never lacked for traditional ways of expressing their
displeasure with leadership, he described one of them from the northern
Plains: putting a blanket over one's head, and perhaps storming out of the
meeting place.

"Boy don't put the blanket over your head here ... They [members of Congress] need your input ... We need to come back [to Washington] more,
not less. We need to talk to our own congressmen and our own senators more,
not less. And we need to get over any thought of 'Where's our friends at?'
We have friends in both parties ... These are tough times, but we have
friends on both sides of the aisle." He also warned against taking a racial
angle on issues before Congress, explaining that nothing obscures a real
issue more quickly.

Conspicuous by absence from the challenges before Indian country, in
Campbell's account, was the Abramoff lobbying scandal. As originally
reported by The Washington Post and amplified in other newspapers and media
outlets around the world, Jack Abramoff's illegal use of lobbying fees from
casino tribes threatens to become one the worst corruption episodes in
congressional history, according to various pundits who assume (along with
virtually all of political Washington, now that Abramoff has entered a
guilty plea) that multiple high-profile indictments will be handed down.
The role of tribes in supplying Abramoff with exorbitant lobbying fees has
been central to the case, to the consternation of many American Indians and
their allies.

Campbell counseled fearlessness in the face of the Abramoff debacle. "A lot
of Indians are worried that the doors will be closed back here [on Capitol Hill] because of this Abramoff scandal," he said. But as a former senator,
he retains certain privileges and one of them was to attend a get-together
on the Senate floor the night before; and there, he told the reception, at
least 20 senators said otherwise. They recognize that tribes were
Abramoff's victims, not his henchmen.

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The great misfortune, according to Campbell, is that Abramoff entered the
picture just at the time when casino-wealthy tribes were beginning to learn
the ropes of lobbying in Washington. "This guy did a lot of damage -- a lot
of damage. But he'll be taken care of."

Clearly, the current climate in Washington and how tribes can hope to
navigate it was Campbell's main burden at the reception, sponsored by the
National Indian Gaming Association and also featuring current Democratic
Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Daniel
Akaka of Hawaii. But speaking more freely as a former senator -- and
appearing to relish the role -- Campbell held forth on a host of other
issues.

As senior policy adviser to Holland & Knight in Washington, he attended the
morning's Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on off-reservation
gaming. He brought unusual lucidity to an often cloudy, always embattled
issue, stating that tribes, having voluntarily left an ancestral area,
should have a hard time arguing for restoration of the abandoned land to
tribal trust status as a casino site. But most tribes left their ancestral
areas involuntarily, he added, and they should have every chance to acquire
in-trust status for ancestral lands.

Those citizens who oppose casinos on tribal land because they've lived in
the area for a number of years and like it the way it is don't get a lot of
sympathy from Campbell, who noted that tribes may have been in the same
area for hundreds of years or more before they were dispossessed. They
shouldn't be excluded from an opportunity to prosper, simply because they
were forced off the land years ago. "How much more can we give this country
than we've given the last 500 years?"

He also spoke out against the efforts of local communities to obtain what
amounts to veto power over tribal government plans to operate casinos.
Tribes are mentioned in the Constitution as sovereigns, he said. Local
chartered communities, with their more limited authority, are not on the
same level with any constitutional sovereign. "How does a local chartered
community get the right to overrule -- France, or any other sovereign
nation?"

But in the spheres of gaming and lobbying, as they concern tribes, reform
is up for consideration before Congress. Campbell had his own take on that,
too: "A lot of these things under the guise of reform, in my view, are
going to deteriorate sovereignty."

In this context, he said to laughter, the mandatory one-year ban on former
congressional members discussing business with lawmakers ended Jan. 3. "And
I plan to be back here."