Advocacy, Avarice or Addiction? What is the Price of Congress?

By Scott Seaborne, CERA News

At the last CERA meeting, someone asked, “How much would it cost to buy Congress on a specific issue?”  The question begs another question, “Are elected representatives always motivated by money?”

The optimist in me wants to think most public officials are our advocates and are motivated by a moral center to do what is best for their constituents and the nation. As I write, our nation is preparing for war in Iraq, marking the 30th anniversary of legalizing abortion, facing terrorist threats and reviewing public policy on affirmative action. Do your federal representatives share you position on these issues? If not, how much money would it take to change their position?  I hope your representative would say, “It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of principle.”

Issues that affect the very core of our national sensitivities and impact a broad number of people are usually so public in nature that national principles usually prevail over monetary inducements. But what about issues that fly low, below the public radar screen? How much money would it take to change one line of the tax code to give a political ally a tax break? How much money would it take to effect public policy if the issues had no deep moral character and affected only a small number of people? Now we could be talking money and the question is, “How much?”

In the final hours of the Clinton administration, Marc Rich, a corrupt, swindling tycoon received a presidential pardon from convictions for tax evasion and fraud. No coincidently, Rich’s wife Denise raised over $1,000,000 for the Democrat Party by hosting fundraisers. Denise Rich also donated generously to the Clinton library in Arkansas and funneled $10,000 to the Bill Clinton defense fund. Was there a public outcry to pardon Marc Rich? Was this pardon a national moral principal or injustice to be made right? Was it advocacy for Mr. Rich or avarice for Mr. Clinton?

Here is an interesting quote from Congressman George Miller (D-CA) during his 1996 interview with Hedrick Smith of the Public Broadcasting System. Mr. Smith asked Mr. Miler how large campaign contributions affect public policy, Mr. Miller said,” The Republicans already are strongly identified with narrow special interests and conflicts of interest that are contrary to the best interests of the people of the United States. That’s how you lose an election. We did some of this, no question about it. We paid a very dear price for it because we traded representing the people for trading the special interests.” He went on to say, “You become addicted to it, you can’t get away from it, and eventually it beats you. It’s like any other addiction. Campaign money can become that and special interest money can become that and eventually you lose your identity with the American public, you lose your identity with the ideals of this nation and you’ll be out of office.

Perhaps Congressman Miller had not yet kicked the money “addiction” by the year 2000 when he slipped a three-sentence paragraph into a 150 page Indian appropriations bill that provided land for the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. The paragraph authored by Miller required the federal government to place an existing card room and surrounding land into reservation status for the 250-member tribe and make it legal to upgrade the card room to a full fledged casino just 20 miles north of the lucrative Oakland CA market. The measure also allowed the Lyttons to avoid all the usual regulatory scrutiny required of other tribes to open a casino . Why did the Lyttons enjoy such royal treatment from Congressman Miller? Is Congressman Miller a strong advocate of the Lytton Band or is he still suffering from an “addiction”?

Unlike the Bill Clinton case where the money is easy to follow, tracing tribal campaign contributions and gifts to legislators is more difficult. Indian tribes are legally quasi-sovereign governments. While the quality, quantity and reach of tribal powers has been debated and questioned for the past 500 years, one tribal power has endured, that of sovereign immunity. Recently, the State of California brought charges against the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians who violated the state’s election law. The Tribe failed to timely report $8,000,000 in campaign contributions to candidates and political organizations over a four-year period. This suit will showcase all the dangers associated with tribal money influence on state and national elections. The case will address the question if Indian tribes are subject to state election laws or are they sovereign and immune from them?

The informed reader might ask, “Didn’t we just pass a campaign finance law? Yes, in March of 2002, President Bush signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which went into effect November 6, 2002. Originally called the “McCain-Feingold”, this reform of campaign financing is the most recent version of a long effort to keep our elections clean and fair. Prior reforms were made in 1907, 1947, 1971, 1974 and 1976. It appears that all preceding reforms were sufficiently defective to spawn the need for subsequent revisions.

This is already true of the BCRA as well. Knowledgeable politicos and public interest groups warned, in the early stages of the Senate version of the bill, that the drafters had failed to include Indian tribal governments in the big picture of campaign reform. Bob Schiff, from Senator Russ Feingold’s office and one of the architects of this bill, told me by phone that they just “missed it” and suggested that tribal governments contributions could be addressed when the bill went through the House. Some members of the House had the courage to draft amendment language to that effect but the amendment never made it to the floor. The debate on the bill itself was so bitter between the Republicans and Democrats, the supporters of the bill feared the bill would go down to defeat if further amendments were allowed. A coalition of House Democrats and some Republicans was formed to get a majority and pass the bill for better or worse. The philosophy used by the House was a defective bill was better than no bill. The bill then passed the House with no provision to address the growing flood of tribal campaign money.

With the new law, now silent on the question of tribal election money, what rules apply to tribal governments? Two year before Bush signed the BCRA, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) responded to an inquiry from the Oneida Nation of New York. The Tribe interpreted the law, at that time, as restricting the Tribe to a maximum annual campaign contribution of $25,000. The Tribe went on to state they did not feel the annual cap should apply to them. This inquiry resulted in FEC’s Advisory Opinion No. 2000-05, May 15, 2000.

This FEC opinion concluded that Indian tribal governments should be classified as “persons”!  This ruling was so bazaar it throws logic and reason on its head. Instead of classifying tribes as governments, which is their status under other laws, the FEC gave tribes the same classification as “persons” who can make campaign contributions and not governments who cannot make contributions. In theory, the ruling allows tribal contributions to be sourced from taxpayer funds, money paid to the tribes by the federal government! Thus you have Congress voting to fund tribes on the one hand and receiving tribal contributions on the other. The ruling restricts other “persons” to $5,000 annual caps but tribes are free from annual caps. “Persons” are limited to $2,000 per candidate but not over the $5,000 cap. Tribes are limited to $2,000 per candidate but are free to exceed the annual cap. The FEC ruling allows tribes to give each and every elected official in Congress $2,000 every cycle. The ruling allows candidates to receive one $2,000 contribution from each of the 560 federally recognized tribes. As an example, Arizona Senator John McCain, who sits on the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs, could legally receive $1,120,000 ($2,000 X 560) from the beneficiaries of the Committee of which he is a member. Am I crying “wolf” here? According to public records, campaign crusader, Senator John McCain is the number one recipient of Indian tribal campaign money in Congress. Is this all advocacy?

Time and space do not permit a review of this entire issue. However the absurdity of this issue is well documented on the CERA website at www.citizensalliance.org. The reader is encouraged to view this resource and read our predictions about will happen to our nation’s election system. Our revealing report can be seen clicking on the “Tribal Influence” link located on the left side of the home page. Be sure read about the “Tribal Governance and Economic Enhancement Initiative” where tribes will seek broad legal powers at the expense of local and state governments. Read it and then ask yourself, “Could such radical legislation become law?” In considering that question, ask yourself, “What will be the nature of Congress’s willingness to give tribal governments whatever they want. When the dust settles, what motivations will prevail – Advocacy or Avarice?