Indian Gaming: The Lobbyists Always Win

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One of the issues discussed in my new essay on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the lobbying by groups of American Indians seeking official tribal status. The BIA has the power to confer tribal status, and it does so in a non-transparent manner. With official status comes tribal access to a wide range of federal subsidy programs plus the ability to earn monopoly profits with a casino. The gaining of official status for tribes was one of Jack Abramoff’s specialty services.

The most recent BIA decision to confer tribal status is a classic case. The 221-member Tejon tribe in California received a thumbs up from the BIA in January 2012. The group’s reservation and its tribal status had been dissolved decades ago, but it hired some powerful Washington lobbyists to work their magic. An article in the Bakersfield Californian notes, “In their quest to gain recognition, the Tejons had the help of an unnamed ‘financial backer’ who had paid $300,000-plus to the tribe’s attorneys.” This financial backer was “banking on a casino.”

A Mountain Enterprise story says that once the Tejon tribe’s status was official, “speculation began almost immediately about the tribe’s plans to affiliate with Tejon Ranch Corporation and Las Vegas investors to establish a casino facility.” Famous D.C. lobby shop Patton Boggs earned $120,000 in fees on the deal.

For the Tejons, the lobbyists produced results. There are hundreds of Indian groups who have petitioned the BIA for tribal status, and the BIA only confers status to a few tribes a year. Yet somehow the Tejons managed to jump to the front of the queue. This list (and this one) appear to show that the tribe ranked low on the recognition waiting list at #230 (but I admit I’m not an expert on how the system works).

The tribes who hire lobbyists don’t always win. Here’s a story about the 450-member Muwekma Ohlone of California:

Financed by their own casino sugar daddy, Florida real estate tycoon Alan Ginsburg and his associates, as well as with proceeds from the tribe’s own archaeological consulting firm, the otherwise humble Muwekma have spent millions of dollars on the effort. Much of that money has gone toward procuring the aid of a high-powered Washington, D.C., law firm…. [R]ecognition would open the door for the tribe… to place land in federal trust as a ‘reservation’ on which it could open a casino. Indeed, should they attain recognition, the Muwekma almost assuredly will become the envy of non-gaming tribes from outlying regions of the state who’ve tried and thus far not succeeded at ‘reservation shopping’ — that is, attempting to set up casino operations in urban areas far from their aboriginal homeland.

The Muwekma Ohlone tribe lost an important court ruling last year, which has set back their search for official recognition. In this case, the only winners were the lawyers and lobbyists, who apparently pocketed huge fees from the tribe. This data source shows that lawyers and lobbyists gain about $20 million a year in fees on Indian gaming-related issues. Jack Abramoff alone raised $80 million from half a dozen tribal clients in the early 2000s for lobbying on a wide range of tribal issues.

Indian gaming and other complex regulatory schemes usually generate “rent” or monopoly privileges that groups vie for a manner that is unproductive to society as a whole. When the government confers special benefits through regulation, wealth is channeled to lawyers and lobbyists but the overall economy shrinks due to the misallocation of resources.

The best policy for gaming would be to repeal all government restrictions and to treat gaming like any other industry. That would eliminate rents and the related lobbying, and it would create an equal and competitive playing field for Indians and non-Indians alike.

The good thing about Indian gaming is that it has shown that Indians are every bit as entrepreneurial as other Americans. But gaming is not likely to be a stable platform for long-term Indian economic development. That’s because as tribal and nontribal gaming continues to expand, profit levels in tribal gaming are likely to decline.

A more durable strategy for Indian prosperity is to make institutional reforms on reservations to encourage broad-based investment in a range of industries, as discussed here.