On Wednesday night the House voted, 212 to 206, to pass a giant spending bill that would keep parts of the government running for the next several months. But it turns out the measure, passed with no Republican votes, does more than that. A little-noticed provision inside the bill, pushed hard by Democrats, could also lead to a massive expansion in the number of casinos run by Indian tribes.
The measure would give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to quickly, and without approval from anyone else, take lands into trust for new tribes. What that means is this: A group of people with some native American background petitions the Secretary for recognition as an Indian tribe. That is approved. The new tribe owns a parcel of land and offers the land to the Interior Department for the purpose of the U.S. government taking title to the property -- taking it into trust -- and then allowing the tribe to use the land for its own purposes. That way, the new tribe doesn't have to pay taxes on the land and is also protected from legal actions against them. Then the new tribe, enjoying those benefits of federal land ownership and not having to answer to any state or local authorities, opens a casino.
In the past, a Supreme Court decision limited such actions to tribes that were recognized at the time a 1930s law governing Indian affairs was passed. Under the new law passed by the House Wednesday night, any new group recognized as a tribe by the Secretary of the Interior -- without review by any other government body -- would be able to use that process.
"The Obama administration is aggressively pushing this," says a Senate GOP aide who is working to try to strip out the measure in the Senate. "There have been lots of pushes to recognize new tribes, basically for gambling purposes. Any group that claims it meets the criteria can apply to Interior to be recognized as a tribe. And this allows newly recognized tribes to take land into trust so that they can operate casinos."
The big spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, will be considered by the Senate next week. Fearing that the House version containing the new Indian land measure will pass, Republicans are trying to sound the alarm. "If no one talks about this," says the aide, "in two years, people will be saying, 'Why are there so many more casinos? What the hell happened?'"