Tribal Campaign Donation Limits Defeated

by Brad Jolly, Partner
Jan 12, 2007

The Senate voted 56-40 against placing limits on the amount of money Indian tribes can donate to political campaigns and parties. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) attempted to attach an amendment to the Senate's larger ethics and reform bill that would have singled out tribes and severely limited their ability to provide political donations. The vote tabled Vitter's amendment.

Currently, the Federal Elections Commission ("FEC") treats tribes the same as partnerships and certain limited liability companies. Thus, currently, tribes can contribute up to $2,100 per election to federal candidates, $5,000 a year to political action committees, $10,000 a year to the federal account of state parties, and $26,700 a year to national parties. However, if a tribe is classified as a corporation or federal contractor, the tribe cannot make contributions just as non-Indian corporations and federal contractors are prohibited from making donations.

Vitter offered the amendment on the misnomer that tribes were somehow responsible for the Abramoff scandal, clearly forgetting that Abramoff referred to his tribal clients as "monkeys" and other derogatory terms. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), leading the Democratic objection to the amendment, reminded the Senate, "We must ensure that the tribes, who were the victims of illegal acts, are not penalized in the name of reform." Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) added, "Indian tribes should not be singled out because of misunderstandings about how the federal laws apply to them. Nor should the sovereignty of Indian tribes or their ability to represent their tribal members be infringed upon."

Interestingly, Senator John McCain (D-AZ) voted against tabling the amendment - a surprising vote from a Senator who has generally been a good supporter of tribes. Although McCain has been on the forefront of campaign reform, one must wonder why he would agree to discriminate against tribes in the political process.

The notion of limiting the political participation of Indian tribes is disturbing. Most of us probably remember when most candidates for national office did not even bother to consider the vote of Indians or issues affecting them. Although it may be a cynical view, it is the recent ability of tribes to make political contributions that has brought presidential and other national candidates to Indian country for the first time in history. Regardless of one's views on the affect of contributions to political candidates and parties, whether by Indians or non-Indians, the reality is that the United States established and supports a system where one has to "pay to play" and it is quite hypocritical and disingenuous to suggest that when some tribes finally have the resources to give them a voice in the political process that they must be ousted to protect the process from corruption.

© 2007 Brad S. Jolly & Associates, LLC