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Tribal amendment expected in campaign finance reform bill

Washington ? As campaign finance reform heads back to the Senate, tribal governments are under scrutiny. The final bill could include a limit on the amount tribal governments can contribute to political campaigns.

After a petition by House members forced the issue, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., scheduled a vote on broad campaign finance legislation.

The Shays-Meehan bill passed the House in the early morning of Feb. 14 by a vote of 240 to 189.

As it now stands, the legislation, co-sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., would ban the unlimited use of "soft money" contributions that individuals, corporations, non-profits and unions give to political parties. Much of this money is used for political ads and other efforts to influence voters. The new bill amounts to the biggest change in campaign finance law in nearly 30 years.

An amendment may be offered that would subject tribal governments to the $25,000 limit per election cycle that now applies to individuals. Currently, the law setting guidelines for campaign contributions is the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971. It includes provisions that directly apply to tribal governments making contributions to a campaign or political party. These rules include restrictions on the amount of political contributions and the way in they are allocated to candidates. Tribal governments are treated the same as other unincorporated groups, such as political action committees, community associations, cooperatives and partnerships.

In a ruling by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) two years ago, limits were eased to allow tribes to contribute as much as they chose to campaigns each year. According to the new ruling, contributions are still limited to $1,000 per election, per candidate, but there is no cap on the total amount given by a tribe to campaigns each year.

Under the law, tribes are categorized as a "person", but are not considered individuals. According to the FEC, the law defines "person" as an "individual, partnership, committee, association, organization or group of persons...", but also has specific guidelines for individuals. In the opinion, officials ruled that tribes are more likely to fall within the category of "any other organization or group of persons." Individuals are limited in the total amount they can contribute annually to $25,000. Organizations and groups, which include tribes, are not.

The term "person" does not include the federal government or any "entity" of the federal government. While some tribes consider themselves governments, the status of a tribe as a government making a contribution has not been specifically addressed by the FEC. However, the FEC has made it clear that State governments and municipal corporations are "persons" under the Act and are subject to the law.

While tribes now enjoy greater visibility and attention from candidates and political parties it has not come about without a price tag. Tribal governments and Indian nations been working to influence the political process in many ways over the past ten years, and even more the past five, including financial contributions to candidates and political parties. The FEC ruling has come to represent a victory for some tribes who have a number of congressional districts in their states and a number of other national elections to which they wish to contribute.

Many tribes and organizations like the National Indian Gaming Association and the National Congress of American Indians see any amendment that would limit contributions as an unfair attack on the tribes' ability to participate in the political process.

"An Indian amendment on campaign finance reform would treat Indian tribes as the only unincorporated group to be limited under the law," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "That would mean that tribal governments would be used as political pawns."

According to the FEC, three tribes ranked in the top 500 for soft money donations in the 2000 election cycle. The Seminole Tribe of Florida ranked 123, Pechanga Band of Mission Indians 372, and Mississippi Choctaw 457.

While these rankings only reflect the contributions of a few tribes, a number throughout the country contribute in some way to political campaigns.