Regulatory Updates

2006 NIGA Legislative Summit: Interview with Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK)

Congressman Tom Cole
Congressman Tom Cole

by AJ Naff, Editor
Indian Gaming Magazine

We should be keeping our hands off of IGRA, the one piece of Native American legislation that has actually come pretty close to doing what it was intended to do. The proposed Class II gaming regulations jeopardize literally millions of dollars that have been invested under certain understandings of the law. And, frankly, the National Indian Gaming Commission, if they're not careful, will be taking on more tasks than they can possibly fulfill. Congress should slow this proposal down and look at it, and there have been some well-intentioned efforts to do that. We also need to avoid legislating the aftermath of the Abramoff scandal. Some of what we're seeing is a knee-jerk reaction to that particular incident and it's very misdirected. The Abramoff scandal is not a gaming scandal and it's not an Indian scandal. It's a lobbying scandal. If we need to do things, they should be in the area of lobbying reform as opposed to trying to regulate an industry that has been successful and has a very good reputation in terms of being ethically and professionally run.

I want to give both Senator McCain and Congressman Pombo their dues. They have been very good friends of Native peoples and they're good defenders of tribal sovereignty. Having said that, I think S.2078 is a classic example of overreaction. There are a lot of things in that bill that are going to make it, just from a business stance, almost impossible to operate. And, again, there are no provisions in the bill that give the National Indian Gaming Commission anywhere close to the number of employees or the bureaucratic structure that it would need to implement these regulations. If the bill was enacted, the administrative staff would have to be tripled or quadrupled to oversee all of the regulations, which would really slow down business. To me, it's almost non-Republican in that sense. It really would make the operation of business enterprise very, very difficult and I have yet to find a single tribe that's in favor of it. In fact, most of the people in the business will tell you that this is just not going to work. And when everybody in the industry is saying that there is no way to make this work, it's a good idea to listen to them. Again, I think this has more to do with the political fire of Jack Abramoff than it does with problems in the Indian gaming industry. I think the House certainly has expressed very great doubts about this Senate bill, as well, so it seems less likely that it will actually make it through the process.

I can't find anybody at the senior level of the Justice Department that has spent a lot of time thinking about the proposed regulations from the DOJ. It seems to have been hatched up in the bowels of the Justice Department by career officials as opposed to actual elected leaders. That doesn't mean it's wrong in and of itself, but it does suggest to me that this thing has gotten further down the road than it should have without proper review in a political sense. I would ask what problems this would actually solve. Most members of Congress don't have a strong understanding of tribal sovereignty or the industry per say, but those who do are generally very opposed to what has come out of the Justice Department. Again, if you're not going to get the recognized leaders of the Native American caucus to bless this legislation on a bipartisan basis, then I think it's very unlikely that it will go anywhere. I don't think there's been nearly enough contemplation in that regard.

A lot of this legislation, frankly, consists of solutions looking for a problem. People really need to ask what the big problems are. Is there massive corruption? Is there fraud? Is there failure? No. We instead see an industry that has done well, that has recapitalized a number of tribes. Frankly, you can always find instances where something goes wrong, but most tribes have used the money very responsibility and have used their capital to diversify themselves economically. I have yet to be convinced that major problems exist in this area. We had a big lobbying problem, but, again, that's frankly not unique to Mr. Abramoff and certainly not representative of what goes on amongst the people that come into my office and other offices representing the interests of Indian gaming.

I think the DOJ bill and S.2078, if enacted could create a stranglehold on the industry. They would both really make it difficult to transact business in a timely fashion. The time with maximum danger for Indian tribes is usually the same time with maximum opportunity. When things are going well, people get concerned and get jealous. They don't like to see successful enterprises. This is an industry that has developed far beyond what anybody envisioned in the late 1980s and early 1990s. People are surprised that it's working so well and think they should go back and look the industry over. They seem to be in that process right now and it's unfortunate because I don't think most of this legislation is stemming out of existing problems within the industry. We should be celebrating a success here, not finding fault in an industry that has done what it was supposed to do - provide jobs, opportunity and capital to the Native people.

I believe in the legislative process and in engaging in the discussion and the debate. For instance, there are certain things in the original legislation that I understand might be coming out now and that have been really tough for us to take out. I'm not interested in the leaders of tribes negotiating with county commissioners or county supervisors. It's a tremendous violation of Indian sovereignty. If there's a problem in California between the county supervisors and the governor as to how they deal with Indian tribes on gaming issues, then that's a problem between those two entities and can't be fixed by placing county supervisors into a role that they shouldn't be playing. My strategy would be to try and deal with each element of this legislation to either make it better or to eliminate it. But if we can't get the bill into an acceptable form by the end of the day, I certainly would oppose it. The most important thing for tribal people to do in this regard is to talk to their legislators. Visit with them here in Washington, visit with them in their districts, and petition them. I wouldn't just hire a lobbyist to do it, based on the problem with the Abramoff thing. This is a complex area and there's a lot to learn and there's a history here. And most members of Congress, again, are very leery because they don't have that much direct experience. So this message has to be taken to them. Tribes should make them familiar with the challenges they have as well as the opportunities and the value they provide. This is not the time to retreat Capitol Hill. It's actually the time for tribes to maximize their presence and to be very aggressive in telling their story.

There are those people with political or economic agendas that would like tribes to be nothing more than fraternal societies or genealogical associations. They're not very interested in tribes being viable economic entities that look after the wellbeing of their people and provide services for them. But that's what a real tribe is, a living organism. It's important as far as it can serve its people's interest and look after them. Indian gaming has allowed a lot of tribes to do that. In this essence, it really isn't a gaming issue - this is really about the viability of tribes to continue to be of relevance to the lives of their people. That means they need resources. They need to be able to provide opportunities and services. They need to be able to help people when they need help. Otherwise, it is just ornamental. I've seen how responsible tribes have been and the resources they've been able to generate, and I'm very proud of them. I've seen tribes providing opportunities not just for Native people, but for communities and other people as well.

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