Regulatory Updates

The Rights of Native Americans Must Be Protected

Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK)
Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK)

by Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK)

If you follow the world in Washington or occasionally pick up any national newspaper you already know about the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. In response, Congress is putting together a major lobbying reform package. This is the good news. The bad news is this package might include proposals to severely limit or eliminate altogether the ability of a tribe to contribute to federal candidates and committees. As the only enrolled tribal member in Congress, I am vigorously opposing this ill-conceived idea.

The crimes Abramoff and his associates have admitted to in federal court are disgraceful and repugnant to us all. I believe they should be punished. I also believe a lobbying reform package is important to show that House and Senate members are committed to ethics and transparency in the political process.

What I don't agree with is the fact that because some of Abramoff's clients were tribes, some have placed blame on Indian tribes and on their participation in the political process. The Native American tribes involved with Abramoff were cheated and misled by the very people they trusted to represent their interests here in Washington. I often remind people that during this ordeal no one has ever accused any tribe or tribal member of breaking the law or acting in an inappropriate manner.

Unfortunately, proposals have emerged that are intended to punish tribes for the misdeeds of Washington, D.C. lobbyists. A vocal minority are arguing that total tribal contributions should be limited to that of a single individual or that only individual tribal members should be permitted to donate to federal candidates or committees. My argument is that tribes are inherently different than individuals, political action committees (PACs) or corporations. The very nature and function of a tribal government necessitates that it speaks for the members and property of the tribe in an absolute way. The current law reflects this belief.

A misperception has arisen that because tribes are not subject to a total giving limit, they are taking advantage of some sort of loophole in the system. This is absolutely incorrect. First, we must remember that tribes have been operating within the law as established and intended by Congress. Secondly, no one has accused any tribe or tribal member of breaking the law or acting in an inappropriate manner. Thirdly, tribes are not the only unincorporated associations or organizations not subject to the contribution limit for individuals. Other examples include community homeowner associations, agricultural cooperatives, and limited liability corporations. And lastly, it should be noted that tribes contributed a minute 0.3% of the total campaign contributions made in 2004.

As we move forward with lobbying reform, we must work to protect Native Americans and their full rights to participate in the democratic process. It is the duty of Congress to protect law-abiding citizens, and not attack them because of an inaccurate view that they have somehow taken advantage of the law.

I am currently leading a bipartisan effort in the House to ensure that the rules governing tribal giving are not altered and their ability to participate in the political process is not compromised. Since spotting this effort to sneak an assault on tribal sovereignty into the lobbying reform package, I have organized tribal representatives, talked with dozens of my colleagues and had numerous high-level conversations and meetings with the House leaders. I am determined to prevent anyone from diminishing the ability of tribal governments and Native Americans to participate in the democratic process as long as I am privileged to serve in Congress.

Congressman Tom Cole is a fifth generation Oklahoman and an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation. He is currently the only Native American serving in Congress and was inducted in the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 2004. He can be reached by calling (202) 225-6165 or email through his website located at