Off-reservation gaming bill is pronounced dead

WASHINGTON – A stealthy effort to pass a bill against off-reservation gaming in the waning days and hours of the 109th Congress has fallen by the wayside in the House of Representatives.

A statement from Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., late Dec. 6, ended the suspense spawned by a series of events that drew the keen attention of Indian gaming lobbyists and legislative staff across Capitol Hill Dec. 4. Jerry Straus represents gaming tribes for the firm of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker in Washington.

“I have heard that there is going to be a last-ditch effort by Speaker Hastert to pass a bill that would restrict Indian gaming rights in some undefined way,” Straus said, adding that it wasn’t clear how this would be done or whether time would permit it anyway in the few days before Congress adjourns. The reason for the sketchy details is that it was being done out of public view, Straus said.

A former Capitol Hill staff member who currently represents gaming tribes said Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, were seeking a legislative vehicle to pass a bill originally introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee. Pombo guided the bill out of committee to the full House, which defeated an effort to pass it without debate in September. Now Hastert and Boehner were asking Pombo to attach it as a “rider” to another “legislative vehicle” – that is, a bill considered likely to pass. The leading feature of Pombo’s bill was to prohibit off-reservation gaming, in particular the siting of casinos across state lines. Out-of-state tribes are trying to site casinos in Boehner’s state and in Hastert’s district.

Both lawmakers will be in the minority party next year, limited in their power to initiate passable legislation, following the dramatic losses of the GOP in the House Nov. 7. Among the losses is Pombo; he will be out of Congress altogether, having lost his re-election bid.

A source said that after discussions with his staff, Pombo decided not to go forward with the bill because any new version would force him to pick winners and losers.

Cole spoke against Pombo’s bill on the House floor in September. His statement confirmed a rash of rumors, but also removed any cause for present concern. “I am very pleased that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Amendment Act, proposed by Chairman Pombo and the Resources Committee, seems to be effectively dead for the 109th Congress. While this bill had good intentions, I was very concerned that if enacted it would violate tribal sovereignty and erode the rights of Native American tribes granted to them in the Constitution of the United States.

“Chairman Pombo has been a tireless champion for Native Americans throughout his career and I appreciate his efforts to address my concerns with this bill. While there have been ongoing discussions and some significant compromises, I do not believe the changes sufficiently protected the rights of tribal governments. As the only enrolled member of a tribe [the Chickasaw] in Congress, I have a unique responsibility to defend tribal sovereignty. I will continue to work next year to ensure that any effort to regulate tribal gaming will not do so to the detriment of tribal sovereignty.”

A spokesperson for Cole confirmed that one of Pombo’s “significant compromises” was to jettison a provision of the bill that would have forced tribes to sign a memorandum of understanding with county authorities before building a casino.