Tribes struggle to find the best approach to get heard in Congress

There was a time, quite a while ago, when gaming tribes couldn’t afford to hire lobbyists to press their cases in front of state officials and Congress at all. And then there was a time when many could afford to pay lobbyists and decided to sit back and let them work on their behalf with very little participation themselves. Today, most tribes and their lobbyists agree that neither approach works.

“Tribal leaders do tend to know their problems better than anyone else, and people in Washington do like to hear from the horse’s mouth as opposed to from paid lobbyists,” says Cate Stetson, president of Legi/X, a lobbying firm based in Albuquerque, N.M.

Michael Lombardi, chairman of California’s Augustine tribal gaming commission and a longtime political observer, agrees with this assessment. He’s been involved in Indian gaming as a consultant and regulator for close to 20 years.

“What has been learned over the years is that there is a way for a tribal government to use a lobbyist effectively, and there’s a way not to use a lobbyist effectively,” he says. “The ineffective way is to let the lobbyist do all of the talking and all of the walking with none of our tribal leaders present to hear what’s being said on their behalf. That would be the Jack Abramoff model. Then there’s the model where the lobbyists set the meetings with the members of Congress, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and then upon setting those meetings take their clients with them. I’ve heard it many, many, many times: The mantra from lobbyists who effectively represent Indian tribes is that the members of Congress want to see Indians. They want to hear from Indians.”

Washington, D.C., lobbyist Scott Dacey, a partner in PACE Government Relations, echoes Lombardi’s view. “The biggest mistake a tribe can make is simply hiring a lobbying firm and then just expecting that things are going to get done, and they don’t engage as tribal leaders themselves in the process. The lobbyist is a resource and a tool to assist in making sure the client understands the legislative process, that the client understands the legislation and its impact and that the client understands who they need to spend their time with and who they don’t need to spend their time with. But ultimately the client needs to express his concerns directly to the elected representative and their staff members, and that’s when it becomes a truly effective lobbying visit.”

Yet this is one of the biggest challenges facing tribal leaders - how to proactively work with their congressional representatives while at the same time trying to mitigate very real problems back home on the reservation. They cannot afford to neglect either obligation, say officials involved in both sides of the lobbying process.

“That’s the reality of being an elected official running a government and a multimillion-dollar operation,” says Jim Battin, a former California state senator who is running for lieutenant governor in 2010. “If you spend all of your time in Sacramento you’ll forget things that you need to get done at home. What you need is a mix. The tribes that are successful in Sacramento are in Sacramento when they need to be there. At other times they’ve got an advocate there that works with them, keeps them in touch and lets them know what’s going on.”

This is where the lobbyist comes in, explains Stetson. Their job is to make sure congressional staffers - often young people who, despite their tender years, generally control the doors of access - have enough comfort level with the issues facing tribal leaders that they are willing to bring those matters before the senator or representative for whom they work. “Then,” she says, “you bring the tribal leader in when they need to meet with the senator or when you need to really make it clear that this is really important. Tribal leaders don’t have time to be schlepping around down there, working from the bottom up.”


Today millions of dollars are spent by gaming tribes in lobbying their state legislators and members of Congress. Experts agree that it can be very expensive. They agree also that little effective lobbying occurred on behalf of Indian tribes prior to the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988.

“I don’t think anybody in Sacramento knew who the tribes were prior to the first bingo parlors being opened in the state,” says Battin. “Now everybody knows who they are. In California they are a very significant political force. Legislators tend to respect very significant political forces.”

Lombardi also believes that tribes now have a voice in Washington and their state capitals largely because of the hard dollars generated from gaming.

“For the first 200 years of the history of the United States, Indians basically came to Washington, D.C., with their hats in their hands and had pictures taken of themselves on the steps of the Capitol and went home and nothing got done. So state governments - who always had lobbyists - were able to strip away millions of acres of Indian land and an untold amount of Indian sovereign governance rights.

“Although the National Congress of American Indians goes back to the 1950s, I think it’s fair to say that their effectiveness as a political power in the halls of Congress has increased exponentially as many of their member tribes have had not only dollars to hire lobbyists but dollars to send their tribal leaders to Washington.”

With the gaming money has come more effective organizational support. Dacey, for one, commends the National Indian Gaming Association for bringing commercial vendors and suppliers into the lobbying mix through its “associate membership” program. Tribes have had to be “smart” and “resourceful,” he says, in getting in front of members of Congress who might not be natural tribal gaming allies, and it helps significantly to have huge employers like IGT and Bally working with tribes in their lobbying efforts.

“It’s that kind of thing that has brought us to the next level,” he says.

Inevitably, any conversation about the nature of lobbying on behalf of gaming tribes comes around to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist who was the central figure in a series of high-profile political scandals in which a number of gaming tribes were defrauded of millions of dollars.

Lombardi contends that the untold story of the Abramoff scandal is how many tribes avoided being drawn in by his pitch to provide access to highly placed federal government officials in return for millions of dollars.

“I think the message that was missed by most of the national media is that most of the tribes were smart enough to realize this guy was a putz who was selling something that was just disingenuous. It was a relatively small handful of Indian tribes who signed up for his sales pitch. Most of them were in desperate straits. They were sold the idea that Jack had direct access to Karl Rove. I remember being asked by a number of tribal leaders during that time, ‘What do you think about this guy - Abramoff - saying he has direct access to Karl Rove?’ I told them I thought it was a bunch of crap. I think it showed the sophistication of most tribes that they did not get caught up in this. I think that most people think that Indians were naïve and were taken advantage of by this person. But less than half a dozen tribes signed up with him.”

Perhaps Abramoff’s biggest mistake was in trying to convince tribal leaders that money would grease the wheels to access.

“If you’re a member of Congress, I don’t see that money necessarily plays that fundamental of a role,” claims Dacey. “Ultimately, the way politics will always be run is through constituent-based pressure groups. In all these years I have yet to come across a member of Congress who is willing to knowingly vote against the interests of his or her own constituents.”

Instead, he says, “When you’re reaching out to members of Congress who may not have a direct interest in your own constituent work - and this is across all industries, not just Indian gaming - you’ve got to figure out a way to develop a relationship. If you’re trying to reach a member of Congress who is sitting on a particular committee you’re going to try to meet with them in their office, you’re going to try to meet with their staff, you’re going to try to make sure they have information that is relevant to the issues surrounding legislation that is coming up before their committee, and you may try to attend fund-raisers that they have. Those are all tools that are time-honored traditions of engaging in relationship-building on Capitol Hill.”

And they’re tools that tribal leaders and lobbyists have learned to use extraordinarily effectively.

“Lobbying is a growth industry for Indian tribes, and there’s a reason that their issues get heard,” Lombardi says. “It’s that lobbyists introduce members of the United States Congress to their tribal leaders, to their issues, to their history, to their unique characteristics. One of the great benefits of that to all of Indian Country is that today members of Congress know their Indian tribes, know that they’re sovereign, know that they’re mentioned in the Constitution and know a little bit about them. When I first started doing this in the late 1980s the ignorance level about American Indians among members of Congress was breathtaking. They knew more about the tribes of Afghanistan than they knew about the tribes in their own states. That’s not the case any longer.”

But tribal gaming leaders cannot afford to sit back on their laurels.

“What doesn’t work is ignoring your legislature,” says Battin. “Ignoring the legislature won’t make it go away. You have to most certainly be involved, especially now as tribal issues have grown. If you just don’t say anything you might not like the end results. So you definitely have to be involved.”