The House suspension calendar is intended for uncontroversial matters, not requiring lengthy consideration or more money from taxpayers.  So why has a hotly debated bill to stop an Arizona Indian tribe from building – legislation that could cost $1 billion or more – again being scheduled for a suspension vote?  One word: money.

The battle between the Gila River Indian Community and Salt River Tribe on one side, versus the Tohono O’odham on the other, has been one of the Capitol’s most expensive fights in recent years.  The issue is a casino the Tohono has been planning to build in Glendale, Arizona, which would cut into the market share of the half-dozen Phoenix casinos operated by the Gila and Salt River tribes.  Over the past two years, the Gila and Salt tribes have plowed more than $7 million into lobbying the battle; the Tohono, in a defensive crouch, has itself spent about $3.5 million more.

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The spectacular outlays of cash generated by tribal lobbying were spotlighted in 2006 during the Jack Abramoff scandal.  Congressional leaders promised reforms – at least until the issue fell off the public radar. But nearly ten years later, little has changed: tribes are showering Washington politicians with campaign cash in an effort to beat down rival nations. Indeed, over the last two years alone, the Gila and Salt River tribes have sent more than $75,000 each to the National Republican Campaign Committee. The Gila tribe, for good measure, gave the maximum to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has no dog in the fight, but happens to be steward of the suspension calendar.

This has proven an effective – and persistent -- strategy: Initially, McCarthy scheduled the bill to kill the Tohono’s casino, HR 308, for a suspension vote on October 26.  Notably, House Republicans were holding a high-dollar fundraiser with the legislation’s supporters the very next day – with tickets running as high as $33,400.

The House Committee on Ethics has been critical of members whose conduct creates the appearance of special treatment for congressional donors. Indeed, the committee once admonished its own majority leader, Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for staging a fundraiser with energy companies just as a House-Senate conference on major energy legislation was set to begin.  According to the ethics committee at the time, “a Member should not participate in a fundraising event that gives even an appearance that donors will receive or are entitled to either special treatment or access.” 

In the case of the Tohono bill, lobbyists pointed out to Republican leadership that the timing of the fundraiser made for bad optics and the suspension vote was scrubbed. The bill’s supporters realized that ripping a page from the DeLay/Abramoff playbook would be ill-advised.      

Political contributions aside, it's remarkable that the Republican lawmakers pushing this bill –generally advocates of free markets and government frugality – would be agitating for such a quick, quiet vote.  HR 308 contravenes not only earlier legislation – signed into law by President Ronald Reagan no less – but also numerous court and agency rulings upholding the Tohono’s right to build its casino.  Further, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has opined that if passed, this bill could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion.

The Republicans are not in lock-step.  For instance, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) sent off a “Dear Colleague” letter criticizing supporters for undermining the Tohono simply “because other, wealthy interests don’t want the competition.”  And the conservative blog Red State has called the bill “reckless legislation that will result in an unnecessary wasting of federal resources.”

"The way I see it, we are essentially asking the American taxpayer to pay for special interest legislation designed to protect East Valley’s tribes’ gaming market,'' said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who has vowed to demand a roll call vote if it appears on the House floor under the fast-track rules of suspension. Not surprisingly, Republicans aren't keen to see their votes recorded in favor of legislation that could raise federal spending by $1 billion.

Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan reminds lawmakers to be on time for votes Lawmakers consider new security funding in wake of shooting Paul Ryan: ‘Beautiful day’ to catch up with Bono MORE (R-Wis.), in his maiden speech following his election as Speaker, pledged that under his leadership, the House would “return to regular order.”  As the new leader put it, “we have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated.”

Less than two weeks later, however, it appears that may have been more of an applause line than a portent of real change.

Sloan, partner with Triumph Strategy, previously served as the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which helped expose Abramoff’s web of corruption.