Jonodev Chaudhuri, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on July 22, 2015. Photo: SCIA

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs schedules hearing on tribal gaming industry

It's that time again -- the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is holding an oversight hearing on the tribal gaming industry.

The committee typically holds at least one hearing on Indian gaming during every session of Congress. The last one took place in July 2015.

At the time, the National Indian Gaming Commission was down to just one member. That type of situation was common during the Obama administration, when the federal agency that oversees the $31.2 billion industry often lacked the full three members that were envisioned when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988.

But the NIGC has been operating with a full slate since March 2016. And despite the arrival of President Donald Trump, who was hostile to tribal interests when he was involved in commercial gaming, the agency remains remarkably stable.

Although housed within the Department of the Interior, the NIGC operates "independent of political factors," Chairman Jonodev Chaudhuri, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, said in July. He serves alongside Kathryn Isom-Clause, a citizen of the Pueblo of Taos, the vice chair of the commission, and E. Sequoyah Simermeyer, who hails from the Coharie Tribe.

"Our terms are statutory terms that don't track the administration's terms," Chaudhuri added. Under IGRA, each member's term runs three years.

"That allow us to focus first and foremost on the regulation of Indian gaming and supporting an industry that is so important, not to just Indian Country, but to the general public," Chaudhuri said.

Gross gaming revenues in 2016 by region. Source: National Indian Gaming Commission

But while the NIGC remains on track with its agenda, the same can't be said for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Trump administration stripped the agency, also housed at Interior, of its authority to make decisions on off-reservation land-into-trust acquisitions, instead handing power to a senior political appointee in Washington, D.C.

That appointee -- Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at Interior -- has already rejected an off-reservation request submitted by a tribe in Michigan. And the Trump team is contemplating a new rule that would make it harder for tribes to acquire land away from existing reservations.

"There's great inconsistency and, to date, the process is unclear to me," Secretary Ryan Zinke, Interior's new leader, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on March 8 when asked about land-into-trust. "I'll get to the bottom of it."

Amid the scrutiny, Zinke has hinted of a new leader for the BIA. But Trump has yet to nominate someone to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, something both of his predecessors, a Democrat and a Republican, had done by this time in their first terms of office.

The Indian gaming hearing takes place next Wednesday, October 4, in Room 216 of the Senate Hart Office Building. The room is larger than the committee's regular room and is used when the committee expects a larger crowd than normal.

A witness list hasn't been posted online yet.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on “Doubling Down on Indian Gaming: Examining New Issues and Opportunities for Success in the Next 30 Years” (October 4, 2017)

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