Featured in Perspective A Glaring Omission

By Kitty Cooper
July 14, 2002

The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law was heralded as a major step forward in making elections more honest by dramatically reducing the ability of wealthy contributors to influence our politics. What a bitter disappointment, then, for us in Connecticut to discover a significant Indian casino loophole, a loophole so large that it spells certain trouble ahead for our state and others where Indian gambling casinos are already operating and where powerful political and financial forces are trying to certify more tribes and build more gaming halls.

The loophole in the law is that not one line in the legislation-not the soft-money ban, not anything else in the statute-limits the capacity of Indian tribes to contribute to political campaigns. The McCain-Feingold statute simply doesn’t mention tribes so, according to federal precedent, the law doesn’t apply to them. Compounding the problem is a Federal Election Commission judgment, advisory No. 2000-05, which has the force of law and which exempts Indian tribes from campaign donor restrictions.

Because almost no limits are placed on what amounts Indian tribes may contribute, they are in the unique position of being able to take taxpayer money, which they receive from the federal government in the form of subsidies and direct payments, and invest in the campaigns of the candidates of their choosing. In receipt of these funds, the tribes are treated as governmental entities. No other government in our nation is allowed to make political contributions. But tribes may do so with impunity.

The money from U. S. government coffers is in addition to the funds available to the tribes from gaming profits. Added together-the government payments with gambling proceeds-these funds comprise a sizable treasure chest for casino-friendly politicians to draw upon for their campaigns.

Neglecting to specify that Indian tribes were to be included in the campaign reform law was a regrettable and a remarkable omission for Congress to make.

But why the mistake was made concerns me less now than reaching a consensus on the need to take appropriate action to correct it. The very concept of tribal casinos is a hot political issue. All sides of this subject should speak out. But it would enhance the debate if pro-casino candidates were not receiving tribal contributions. I’d like to see all candidates on the Federal and State level pledge to refuse tribal casino money for their campaigns until this law is amended to correct this error.

Without such a pledge, the billion-dollar Indian casino industry will emerge as the mother lode of political campaign contributions. Candidates who are thirsty for cash and willing to make a deal will find a welcome reception from tribal casino operators and the lobbyists representing them in Washington. What will this mean for Connecticut? It means that those of us who oppose Indian casino gambling now face a special interest group stronger than we ever faced before. It is a special interest group with money, resources and Inside-the-Beltway connections of large proportions.

But we can prevail, no matter how great the odds are against us. In Washington, we must have a new Congress that makes its first order of business an amendment to McCain-Feingold so that the campaign law applies to Indian tribes. Otherwise, Indian casino advocates will turn Connecticut into another Nevada, with gambling halls at every turn. The two existing casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, create problems enough. More of the same would be totally unacceptable. But more are being planned. Nationwide, 200 Indian groups are now petitioning the federal government for tribal status, 12 of them in Connecticut. That’s 12 more casinos for Connecticut. We cannot stand by and allow such a travesty to be visitited on our state.

I feel two things must happen. One, our representatives in Congress must include tribes in campaign-reform law. Two, our representatives must make federal authorities understand, in no uncertain terms, that Connecticut will tolerate no more casinos.

Ours is a beautiful state with a great history and traditions. We got along fine without casinos. We can get along fine without them in the future. Moreover, the two casinos we have, if they are to remain, must be better regulated and pay more taxes. Their costs-in terms of crime, traffic, public safety, moral ambiguity-far outweigh any benefits they may claim.

Kitty Cooper is the finance chairman for the Jeff Benedict congressional campaign.