I often don’t behave exactly the way elites would want. I use plastic bags even when forced to pay for them. I consume soft drinks regardless of any sin taxes. I don’t drive an electric car despite their generous federal subsidies. And I am a poker player.
In short, as far as I’m concerned it’s my money and I’ll do with it what I want.
Based on their typical rhetoric you would think that the Republican Party wouldn’t often get in my way. After all, the GOP frequently claims to want to cut taxes in order to return “the people’s money” to “those who spend it best.” Yet it was Republicans that sneaked the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) into an unrelated port security bill in 2006, providing the legal basis for a sleazy New York-based U.S. Attorney and unrepentant thug named Preet Bharara to shut down my favorite poker sites in 2011 and seize my assets that they were holding (which the government returned only years later, without interest).
Though around the same time, there were also some positive developments. Later in 2011, the Justice Department rethought its long held interpretation of the Wire Act and finally admitted that a bill passed in 1961 to prohibit use of a “wire communication facility for the transmission … of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest,” couldn’t possibly have been meant to cover non-sports betting over a medium not yet in existence at the time it was passed.
While the prosecutions that brought down Full Tilt and cut off PokerStars from the U.S. market were based on UIGEA, Justice’s updated understanding of the Wire Act was a significant development. UIGEA only made illegal the financial transactions for “unlawful internet gambling,” but it didn’t define what was unlawful, relying instead on existing state and federal laws – laws like the Wire Act.
Now that the Wire Act no longer clearly prohibits online poker and other gaming, the door’s been opened for states to legalize and regulate such activities as they choose. And a few – Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada – are moving to legalize online poker within their borders, where they hope to remain free from federal molestation.
So all is well that looks like it will eventually end well, right? Not so fast.
Billionaire Sheldon Adelson is a major donor to the Republican Party, and he is outraged that anyone might be allowed to legally gamble anywhere other than inside the walls of his Vegas casino. For our own good, no doubt.
The man who last election spent $150 million in a failed attempt to defeat President Obama has now promised to “spend whatever it takes” to destroy his gaming competition. He’s unleashed a financial blitzkrieg in Washington, resulting in a pernicious piece of legislation called the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA). Seriously, his lobbyists even wrote it.
RAWA has been introduced again this Congress, by Lindsey Graham in the Senate and Jason Chaffetz in the House, after briefly looking like it might pass in last year’s lame duck, which didn’t happen despite the best efforts of then Majority Leader Harry Reid (of Nevada, naturally). They claim it will undo executive branch overreach by restoring the irrational interpretation of the Wire Act previously held by the Justice Department. In essence, it would ban online gambling and poker at the federal level, ignoring principles of federalism and overriding the wishes of states that have chosen to legalize consensual recreation.
On March 25th there will be a hearing on the bill, where the witness list is expected to be stacked heavily in favor of RAWA, as it was the first time they tried to hold a hearing earlier this month that was postponed due to winter storms.
Will they ultimately succeed in halting the expansion of liberty in order to protect the business interests of their biggest mega-donor? It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of opposition to the bill, including from conservative and free market organizations (Disclosure: the President of my organization joined the linked letter) appalled by such a clear rejection of espoused principles. But there wasn’t much support for UIGEA in the first place either, and they sneaked it through anyway.
Times have changed, though, and the march toward greater freedom (in non-economic spheres, anyway) is all around us, which is not to suggest that there are no areas were liberty is contracting, like privacy. But, for example, medical and even recreational marijuana legalization is spreading rapidly. And more states than ever are allowing brick-and-mortar casinos to open, so much so that casinos in Atlantic City are closing left and right due to all the new competition.
Increasingly, Americans are adopting the mature position that their fellow citizens have a right to engage in activities that do not infringe upon the rights of others even when they don’t personally approve. And as the utter failure of other prohibition policies have demonstrated, simply outlawing popular activities doesn’t stop them from taking place. Instead, it drives demand underground to less scrupulous suppliers, putting people at greater risk than they were at merely doing whatever it was the nannies and moralists initially disapproved of.
Sheldon’s lackeys are certainly doing their best to disguise the purpose and end result of their legislation. Framing the issue as one of overreach by Obama’s Justice Department provides a whiff of authenticity for their constituents given this administration’s well known proclivities to operate outside the law and beyond the bounds of the Constitution.
But they shouldn’t buy it. Any overreach here is from the members of Congress who want to substitute the judgment of states with their own. For Republicans to pick this of all times to take a stand against freedom, federalism, and individual rights is madness. That they would be doing so as a form of cronyism in the lead up to a presidential election where one of their chief arguments will be the need to reverse course from Obama’s crony handouts and political favoritism makes it doubly so.
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