Conyers and Dingell face off over casinos
By Susan Crabtree
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) is clashing with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) over the thorny issue of Indian gambling, setting up a standoff between two of the oldest bulls in Congress.
Conyers has stepped into an Indian gambling dispute that is dividing the Michigan delegation and the Democratic Caucus. After teaming up with Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the 22-term House veteran has used his position as chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee to oppose two bills that would settle tribal land disputes and clear the way for new casinos to be built near both lawmakers’ Detroit-area districts.
Conyers argues that the bills would change the way casinos are approved by allowing Congress to get involved in land dispute claims that the U.S. Department of the Interior routinely determines. He also cites the concern that the casinos would be located more than 350 miles from the tribes’ reservations.
“Without these constraints, there would seem to be no limit to how far Indian gaming could spread, far beyond reasonable bounds,” Conyers said at a hearing he held on the issue the day before Congress left for its spring recess.
On the other side, Dingell, a 27-term veteran of the House and its longest-serving member, has joined forces with Natural Resources panel Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), along with a bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers, to push for the bills.
Dingell argues that the cities where the casinos will be built — Romulus and Port Huron — are in dire need of the new jobs and economic stimulation that the casinos would provide. Romulus lies in his district, while Port Huron must compete with jobs right across the border in Canada, where a casino already exists.
But Conyers and Kilpatrick worry that the new casinos will cut into profits of existing Detroit casinos, including one owned by MGM Mirage, which is lobbying furiously against the bills. If built, the new casinos could cut into revenue that Detroit receives from taxes on those profits because Indian gambling revenues are exempt from local, state and federal tax.
Conyers has until April 4 to either rewrite the measure or decide to hold a committee vote on the bills.
Many of the panel’s members oppose the bills and would vote against them. The Judiciary Committee’s stamp of disapproval could help stir opposition once it reaches the House floor for a full vote.
The intra-party feud also is shaping up as the first major test for Democrats on the thorny issue of Indian casinos after the fall of Jack Abramoff, whose corrupt lobbying practices involving tribes and gambling helped propel Democrats into power in 2006.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been thrust into the middle of the gambling spat and has promised Dingell floor time for the bills, according to two sources tracking the measure. But the division runs so deep that the outcome of such a vote is unpredictable. MGM Mirage and the two tribes that stand to benefit, the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Sault Ste. Marie, have spent the last month ratcheting up their lobbying blitz.
The intense battle over Indian gaming pits many CBC members, who side with Kilpatrick and Conyers, against proponents of the measure, such as Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), as well as Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who co-chair the Native American Caucus. Many conservative Blue Dog Coalition members oppose casinos on principle, arguing that they create more crime and dependency.
At the pre-recess Judiciary hearing, several members on both sides of the aisle expressed deep reservations about the legitimacy of the land deals. The hearing was held to counter a previous hearing in the Natural Resources Committee, where Dingell and Conyers testified, along with three other sitting lawmakers.
The Natural Resources panel overwhelmingly approved both bills. One would settle the land claim of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, and the other addresses the Bay Mills Community tribal land.
Dingell has said he is supporting the casinos because the residents of his district and the neighboring district of Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) want them.
“I will say it again — the people of Romulus approved a referendum supporting the opening of a casino in their community,” Dingell said in February. “It would be the only casino in my district. It would be run by a Native American tribe that has a legitimate land claim issue and that also operates a casino in Detroit.”
He said the tribe is not concerned about the effect a Romulus casino would have on its Detroit operation. But the opponents of the Romulus casino say that the lack of concern stems from their belief that the casino in Detroit was hurt when MGM built a newer, more elaborate operation in the city.