Scenes like this one, of tribal gaming lobbyists working their issues in Congress, don’t seem to be producing many results these days

An awful lot of people are unhappy with the direction – or lack thereof – of the United States Congress this year. Now you can add Native American tribes that operate casinos across the country to that long list.

No Respect in Congress for Tribal Issues

Discussing the lack of any federal legislation to clarify and regulate the new relative Wild West that is state-by-state online gambling in the U.S. these days, John Gusik – a founding partner of the Washington D.C.-based law and government relations services outfit called the Franklin Partnership, had this to say at the recent Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas: “There have been 4,500 bills in Congress this year; only 31 have been enacted. It’s a do-nothing Congress. Seventy-two bills dealing with tribal issues and none have been enacted. Internet gaming continues to languish in Congress.”

While the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 established the framework for Native American casinos to benefit this until-then underclass economically, it hasn’t all been champagne and roses for some of the tribes, who still grapple with basic issues such as better education and health care for their members. And now – as legal online poker in Nevada and imminently, legal Internet casino gambling in New Jersey and Maryland take hold – the Indian “special nation” status vis a vis casinos may be threatened, particularly as gambling industry executives warn of impending market saturation throughout most of the U.S. that will affect the entire marketplace.

Obviously, all the drama surrounding health care and the government shutdown hasn’t exactly helped put focus on Indian casino industry issues either.

Casino Money Isn’t Enough, Lobbyists Insist

The National Indian Gaming Commission showed $27.9 billion in gaming revenues in 2012, which is up 2.6 percent from $27.2 billion in 2011, so the tribes may have trouble garnering much sympathy from anyone in a still unsteady economy, but lobbyists says there is much more at stake for the tribes than just revenue.

“If you represent tribes, they think you must work on Indian gaming all the time,” said Pete Kirkham, who runs Red Maple Consulting, a government affairs and political strategy firm, and works with many of the tribes on various legislative issues. “Gaming takes up some time but it’s also about health care, education and housing.”

Kirkham says they are still waiting on 13 appropriation bills that the tribes need for funding. He says that while the majority of tribal income is gaming-derived, that much of it goes directly back into the community.

“Everything is now seen through the prism of gaming,” said Jana McKeag, president of Lowry Strategies, an Alexandria, Va., government and public affairs consulting firm. “Congress believes that tribes have all this gaming money … why do they need (federal dollars)?”

Other issues that tribal lobbyists want addressed involve the profusion of off-reservation casinos in areas where those casinos might take business away from the Indian ones. Additionally, the proliferation of Internet cafes in states like California, Florida, and North Carolina are seen as a problem the entire gaming industry must address.

“In California, for example, they are illegal but the state has no money to shut them down,” McKeag noted on the G2E panel. “They are not regulated and are an opportunity for money laundering. The problem is if they shut them down, they just pop up somewhere else.”

Meanwhile, with everything happening in Congress right now, it doesn’t look like tribal gaming issues are likely to move to the front of the line anytime soon.