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The Republican Party Has a Gambling Problem

Republican members of Congress have a problem with gambling. Don’t misunderstand me, Republican lawmakers aren’t problem gamblers (as far as I know), instead their gambling problem stems from the paradoxical corner their opposition to gambling, specifically online gambling, paints them into.

If you’ve wondered why not a single online gambling bill has been brought to the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate for a vote since UIGEA in 2006 it might be because of the Republican Party’s gambling problem.

You see, if you’re a Republican legislator in the federal government, regardless of whether you vote Yea or a Nay on an online gambling bill, it’s going to send a significant chunk of your base into a tizzy. For the vast majority of Republican lawmakers there is no good position to take on online gambling.

State vs. Federal

State lawmakers have it relatively easy, as they can oppose gambling on moral grounds and appease their sizable base of social conservative voters. State lawmakers don’t have a free ride, as they still have to deal with civil libertarians who feel the government (particularly the federal government) shouldn’t be getting involved in what people do with their money so long as they’re not hurting anyone else.

As difficult as it is balancing those two dynamics, at the federal level there is a third dynamic at play, as gambling is generally seen as an issue that should be decided at the state level. And since the birth of the Tea Party, there really isn’t a more vocal group than the states’ rights advocates.

So while state lawmakers can make the calculated decision of which base will be more perturbed, civil libertarians or social conservatives, for federal lawmakers it’s far more complex. Not only do they have to deal with the added third dimension of states’ rights, but also because many of the social conservatives they are trying to woo with their anti-gambling votes have equally strong feelings when it comes to states’ rights.

Both the lawmakers and their constituents face an interesting and complex dichotomy.

A prime example of this is the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).

Goodlatte is a longtime opponent of gambling and was one of the authors of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). Yet he has shown a reluctance to get behind or bring Jason Chaffetz’s RAWA bill up in committee, even though Chaffetz is also a member of the House Judiciary Committee and this is where the RAWA bill was sent for assignment – although there are rumblings that the Judiciary Committee may hold a hearing on RAWA during the Lame Duck.

Like in the case of Goodlatte, these conflicting elements are pulling Republican lawmakers in two different directions at the same time, so it should come as no surprise that the most prudent vote on online gambling for a Republican lawmaker is to take no vote at all. Many Republicans are more than happy to discuss this issue in committee (where they can hit on all their talking points from the social ramifications to the potential overreach of the federal government that passing such a bill at the federal level brings about) so long as no formal vote is cast.

Instead of voting Yea or Nay on the floor, a committee hearing affords them the opportunity to instead talk about the complexity of the issue and how further research is needed.

The Wire Act hypocrisy

Another great example of this is the way opponents of online gambling have been framing their opposition to the current DOJ interpretation of the Wire Act offered by Deputy US Attorney General Virginia Seitz back in 2011.

Seitz’s opinion (offered after New York and Illinois asked for clarification regarding online lottery sales) reversed a 2002 opinion, which as Michelle Minton has noted, ignored a previous ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court that ruled the Wire Act only applicable to sporting events, not games of chance.

While opponents have called Seitz’s opinion the work of an overreaching federal government, it was in fact the opposite, returning the power of legalizing or prohibiting online gambling to the states.


Finally, there is also the problem of carveouts. Any ban on online gambling will certainly contain exemptions, and it’s the optics of these exemptions that lawmakers fear. There is the availability of online horse racing, current carveouts for Fantasy Sports, and the not so small problem of four states having approved the sale of lottery tickets online, on top of the three states that have launched online poker and gambling industries, Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey.

Congress may be known for their quid pro quo way of doing things, but every so often policy positions can be so hypocritical as to be outrageous. And Republicans voting for an online gambling ban would find themselves in just such a position.

It’s hard to call for a ban of online poker or even online casino games when you are simultaneously fighting to preserve the ability to sell lottery tickets online, or keep online horse racing legal, or expand brick & mortar gaming, or simply seen as dancing to the tune of a billionaire casino magnate who is against one particular type of gambling, the kind done behind a computer screen.

The attack ads write themselves. And this is why Republicans have a gambling problem.



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Steve Ruddock

Steve is veteran of the the poker industry, first as a player and now as a writer focusing mainly on the regulated U.S. markets and the politics of poker. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveRuddock and at Google+.