Politics

House Democrat Boasted of Saving Tribal-Contributions Loophole

Today, Democrats are trying to make an issue of Republicans’ being influenced by contributions from Indian tribes, but four years ago at least one leading Democrat bragged about stopping Republicans from closing the campaign-finance-law loophole that has allowed Indian tribes to maintain an inordinate influence in Washington.

Shortly after the House passed the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Rep. Dale Kildee (D.-Mich.), co-chairman of the House Native American Caucus, boasted that Democrats had stopped the House Republican leadership from closing the loophole that allows Indian tribes to contribute to an unlimited number of federal candidates without facing an aggregate cap.

A Feb. 15, 2002, statement on the letterhead of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (headlined "Democrats Foil House Republicans’ Effort to Limit Native American Political Donations") specifically accused "Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay" of leading an effort to "severely restrict donations by Native American tribes."

The statement said the Republican leaders’ amendment was killed "by the united opposition of the Democratic House caucus, and a handful of pro-Indian Republican congressman."

Democrat Double-Speak

Today, accusatory Democrats are pointing at contributions that DeLay and Hastert received from casino-owning Indian tribes that were clients of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But in 2002, Democrats were accusing the same GOP leaders of trying to limit tribal political clout by limiting tribal contributions. In this election cycle, despite all the attention paid to Abramoff-client-related contributions to Republicans, it turns out that Democrats have received more in tribal contributions than Republicans, according to data collected by OpenSecrets.org.

The 2002 statement on DCCC letterhead (see copy to the right) quoted Kildee as saying: "Just as the political clout of Native Americans is rising in Washington, D.C., the Republican leadership’s amendment would have cut off the tribes’ ability to be real political players on the national scene."

The part of the campaign-finance law that limits the amount any single donor can contribute to a single candidate refers to donors as “persons.” But the part of the law that puts an aggregate cap on the amount a single donor can contribute to multiple candidates refers to "individuals." The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has ruled that an Indian tribe is a "person" under the law, but not an "individual." Tribes, therefore, have been subject to the limit on the amount that can be given to an individual candidate, but not to the cap on the aggregate amount they can give to candidates across the board.

The Republican-backed amendment Kildee referred to would have applied the aggregate limit to Indian tribes. But the amendment never made it to the House floor.

The Palm Springs (Calif.) Desert Sun reported on the amendment battle in a Feb. 23, 2002, article titled, "Tribes: Reform Law’’ Early Draft Had Unfair Limits."

"Supporters of tighter limits on tribal campaign contributions say tribes are beneficiaries of a ‘loophole’ that exempts them [from] the same contribution limits placed on individuals," said the Desert Sun.

"A network of legislators, Indian advocates and tribal gaming lobbyists is taking credit for stopping the effort they suspect was an attempt to undermine reform by eroding support for Shays-Meehan among Indian-friendly representatives," said the Desert Sun.

"Kildee, who founded the Native American Caucus in 1997, said it wasn’t until February 13, just hours before the Shays-Meehan floor debate, that the effort to limit tribal contributions to federal candidates was defeated," said the paper.

"If added, tribes would have been prevented from spending more than $25,000 on candidates in any election cycle," said the Desert Sun. "Tribes, like individuals and other groups, are already limited to spending $1,000 on any individual federal candidate per election. The proposed change would have hampered tribes’ flexibility to spread contributions across many candidates, a common tactic among special interest groups."

Unlike other special interest groups, however, Indian tribes are not required to form Political Action Committees when they contribute funds to federal candidates or to report their contributions to the FEC.

The Feb. 15, 2002, statement on DCCC letterhead in which Kildee accused Republican House leaders of trying to "cut off the tribes’ ability to be real political players on the national scene" was provided to this reporter by a Republican congressional aide who insisted on re’s online archives, and a DCCC spokesman said he could neither deny nor verify the statement because it dates back three DCCC administrations. Kildee’s office, however, confirmed he said what the statement said he did.

This reporter provided a copy of the statement to Kildee’s press secretary Scott Kuschmider who responded via email: "Thank you for contacting me. Congressman Kildee can verify the quote from the DCCC release in 2002 and today stands by the statement he made at the time concerning the defeat of the Armey amendment."

The statement on the DCCC letterhead also attributes a quote to Rep. Nita Lowey, who was then-chairwoman of the DCCC, and whose name appears on the letterhead: "This week Republicans tried to limit the political giving ability and power of Native Americans." But two weeks from now, the Republicans want Indian tribes to attend a fundraising event in Washington D.C. What’s wrong with this picture?

Representatives Dave Camp (R.-Mich.) and J.D. Hayworth (R.-Ariz.), who is co-chairman of the Native American Caucus, may have been two of the "handful of House Republicans" the statement credits with working to preserve the Indian contribution loophole in 2002, although Camp and Hayworth argued it isn’t a loophole. In 2001, a day before Shays-Meehan was referred to the House Administration Committee, then-chaired by Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney (who stepped aside as chairman earlier this year after it was reported he was a target of the Justice Department’s Abramoff-related investigation), Camp and Hayworth wrote a letter to Ney stating that to “change the federal election laws to subject tribes to aggregate contribution limitations that currently apply to an individual donor, as some suggested, would unfairly and unnecessarily target the Native American community."

In the Feb. 23, 2002, report in the Desert Sun about the loophole-closing amendment, Rep. Kildee credited Hayworth as one who had helped thwart it. The paper said Hayworth had "urged his Republican colleagues to resist the low-profile efforts to amend Shays-Meehan to restrict tribes."

"We were singling out Indian tribes and trying to dilute their ability to be involved," Hayworth was quoted in the paper speaking of the Republican-led effort. "I’m not sure how it came up."

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