If it were a public company, the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians would be the envy of corporate America. With a return on revenue of 41%, the tribe's Silver Star Resort & Casino would top the Fortune 500 profitability list, dwarfing even money spinners like Microsoft, whose 29% return last year seems modest by comparison. The Choctaw Tribe has proved even more productive by another crucial yardstick: influence peddling in Washington. How successful is it? In 1997 the tribe secured its very own special-interest provision hidden in a massive federal-spending bill. And it taps the government for tens of millions of dollars in federal aid every year, even though the Silver Star rakes in annual profits of about $100 million.
Indian gaming interests have come up with a one-two punch that is helping them get their way with politicians. Indian constituents, acknowledged as long-suffering victims of ill-conceived government policies, often succeed at requesting political favors. Meanwhile, they or their wealthy backers are dumping money--staggering amounts of it--into political campaigns, lobbying and state ballot initiatives. This combination has helped create the out-of-control world of Indian gaming, a world where the leaders of newly wealthy tribes have so much political power that they can flout the rights of neighboring communities, poorer tribes and even some of their own members. Their political clout also helps them protect a chaotic gaming system that has served them well, one that is characterized by overburdened and underfunded watchdog agencies, a mishmash of regulations and a lack of financial accountability. As a result, Washington often ignores the needs of Native Americans in distress while assisting those who least need help.
As recently as a decade ago, Indian tribes were barely a blip on the special-interest radar screen. But since 1993, they have contributed $8.6 million to federal candidates. In the Clinton years, most of the money went to Democrats. During his second run for office, in 1996, tribes handed out a total of $1.9 million, 86% of it to Democrats. But with a Republican in the White House, Indian tribes have shifted the target of their largesse. So far this year, 56% of the $1.4 million they have donated to federal campaigns has gone to the G.O.P. The tribes have invested even more heavily in lobbying Congress. In 2000-01 they spent $20 million lobbying on such issues as preserving the tax-free status of casinos, expanding gaming operations and protecting Indian sovereign immunity, which allows them to avoid regulations imposed on other businesses.