THE FIGHT: Hot Air Emanates from Capitol Hill

heat-wave

The source of the country’s heat wave appeared to be hot air from Washington about internet poker.

The poker regulatory action centered on Washington this week. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate got in on the fun, but by the end of the week many people were scratching their heads and wondering what, if anything, had been accomplished.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and the Poker Players Alliance got things rolling on Tuesday with a media call to promote Barton’s Internet Poker Freedom Act. Despite being the primary sponsor of IPFA, Barton was quick to punt the ball on legalizing internet poker to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Barton said that if his bill reaches the mark-up stage of the legislative process, “then we have to look to the Senate and Senator Reid. If the Senate gets serious about Internet poker, then we’re serious too.”

Reid’s been missing in action almost since the moment he defeated Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle in a tough re-election fight in 2010. He trailed Angle in polls a few months before that election, but banked several hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions from casinos over the summer to turn back the challenge. He also announced a reversal of a long-held position against online gambling at a meeting of casino executives in Reno that August. Quite the coincidence.

Despite his public stance as pro-poker, Reid has never managed to match his actions to his words. The online poker bills that he crafted (but never introduced) in 2010 and 2012 were heavily tilted in favor of Nevada. When a version of the 2012 bill was leaked to POLITICO, it prompted a furious lobbying campaign from state lotteries and Indian tribes, both of whom saw it as a threat to their businesses.

Reid promised he’d work on legalizing online poker again this Congress. “We’re going to try to thread the needle. It’s going to be harder to do than it was before,” he told PBS in January, reiterating that online poker remained a priority for him.

Apparently making sure that the House is on board with the poker plan isn’t part of Senator Reid’s needle-threading and prioritization. Barton told reporters on Tuesday that he hadn’t spoken to Reid or Heller at all this congressional session.

That brought us to Wednesday, when a Senate subcommittee held a hearing entitled, “The Expansion of Internet Gambling: Assessing Consumer Protection Concerns”. Three of the four expert witnesses for the hearing were a retired South Carolina local police officer, a lobbyist for the Catholic Church, and a Washington lawyer who specializes in money laundering and financial crime and who told the subcommitte, “I think gambling is dumb.”

You can imagine how things went. The witnesses and various senators tied the scourge of online gambling to human trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime, all while making sure to decry the perils of underage gambling. Won’t somebody think of the children?

The junior Nevada senator, Republican Dean Heller, is the ranking minority member of that subcommittee. He repeatedly slammed the Justice Department for its December 2011 reinterpretation of the Wire Act that permitted states to begin offering intrastate online gaming and called for the previous interpretation of the Wire Act to be reinstated.

“With one decision, the Department of Justice effectively rendered all laws that have been on our books, put together by members of Congress for over 50 years… useless to regulate and stop internet gambling. The result is the floodgates are now open to states legalizing all forms of internet gambling, such as casino games and lotteries… It’s a regulatory race to the bottom.”

Heller did allow that poker, as a game of skill, is different from other forms of gambling and perhaps should be permitted. After the hearing was over, he told Washington reporters, “Senator Reid and I are on the same page on this issue,” according to GamblingCompliance.com.  And the Las Vegas Sun reported Reid as saying, “This was a very, very good hearing. I helped [Heller] prepare for this.”

Barton’s bill, by the way, is silent on the issue of the Wire Act. A different bill in the House, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), clearly isn’t interested in rolling back the Wire Act, as it would authorize all forms of internet gambling except for sports betting. The left hand isn’t talking to the right.

Even if the two hands do start talking to each other, then what? While it all sounds good, we’ve been down this road before. Reid has given many quotes over the past three years that are supportive of legalizing online poker at the federal level. Dealing with the actual legislative challenges, on the other hand, hasn’t been his strong suit.

If Reid’s serious about winning THE FIGHT to legalize online poker, at some point he’ll have to put up his dukes.

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