The Influence Game: Drawing to an online straight
4/20/09 - Associated Press
By Frederic J. Frommer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Poker Players Alliance is betting $3 million that it can overturn an Internet gambling ban, or at least carve out an exemption that would legalize and regulate online poker.
The alliance, chaired by former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., says it plans to spend that much on lobbying in this session of Congress. The group gets its money from the Interactive Gaming Council, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based trade association for online casinos, as well as from its poker player members.
The alliance is up against some tough competition. The National Football League says gambling threatens the integrity of its games and has made preserving the Internet ban a priority in Washington. Last year, the league hired a full-time lobbyist and started a political action committee to make campaign donations.
At issue is the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which Congress passed at the end of 2006. The law aimed to curb online gambling by prohibiting financial institutions from accepting payments from credit cards, checks or electronic fund transfers to settle online wagers.
At least half the $16 billion Internet gambling industry, which is largely hosted on overseas sites, is estimated to be fueled by bettors in the United States.
In the last congressional session, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee pushed unsuccessfully to repeal the ban. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., plans to try again soon, a committee spokeswoman said.
The colorful and outspoken D'Amato was a natural choice to lead the Poker Players Alliance, even though it was his former GOP colleagues who had pushed the 2006 gambling ban. As a senator, D'Amato organized poker games with staffers and lobbyists in his office.
"We'd order pizza or Chinese, and we would play until the session was over. Sometimes it would end at 10:30, 11," he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
"And maybe we'd play an hour or two later. It was a lot of fun. And in those days, we were even allowed to smoke cigars in federal buildings."
D'Amato lost his re-election race to Democrat Chuck Schumer in 1998. Since then a lot of poker playing has moved to the Internet.
"How dare you come into my house and tell me what I can and can't do on the Internet!" D'Amato said, citing online activities from business transactions to Facebook, even bragging about the number of friends he has on the social network site — more than 700.
"The Republican conservatives, who basically say" — and at this point, he shifts his tone to a mock, nagging voice, "'We want less government,' come in and intrude, and they say, 'No, you can't do this.'"
"It's a cause for personal choice and freedom that I've always thought epitomizes what this country's about," added D'Amato, who plays poker Monday nights at Oheka Castle, a hotel and estate on Long Island.
The NFL sees things differently.
"We are opposed to more gambling on our games which is what would occur if the 2006 law was overturned," league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an e-mail.
"We understand that illegal gambling currently occurs but there is little we can do about that," he said. "However, we can exercise our right to oppose Internet betting on our games. ... Gambling on our games — online or off-line — threatens the integrity of our games and all the values they represent."
Other sports backed the 2006 ban as well, including the NCAA and professional baseball, basketball and hockey, but the NFL led the effort. The Christian Coalition also reported lobbying to preserve the ban.
The NFL has opposed gambling on professional football for many years. Pete Rozelle, commissioner from 1960 to 1989, feared tampering by organized crime.
D'Amato said he had no problem with letting leagues ban betting on their games, but argued that online poker should be legal.
"What about the elderly, who have no ability to travel?" he asked. "You're going to say to them that a form of entertainment that they have — they should be precluded from because Big Brother says no?"
The 2006 law didn't provide a clear definition of unlawful Internet gambling, instead referring to existing federal and state laws, which themselves provoke differing interpretations. The Justice Department maintained that Internet gambling is illegal even before the 2006 law.
Former Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who helped write the law, told the AP he recognizes the libertarian argument for allowing gambling. "The question is, is it compelling?" he asked. "It's not a close call."
Leach called Internet gambling "a double-whammy for society. It is so seductively habit-forming that individuals can in short order lose their homes and jobs and, indeed, their families and futures. And the effects on individuals redound into society."
The way D'Amato sees it, if the government were to regulate and tax online poker, it could ensure the games are fair and generate hundreds of millions of dollars to combat gambling addiction or other problems.
"How do you like that?" he said. "Raise some revenue during these difficult periods."
Last year, the Poker Players Alliance established a political action committee, but its members had been active even before that. Leach lost his re-election race in 2006 after drawing the ire of poker players, who take credit for helping defeat him.
Leach, now a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, doesn't contest that. "I realized that support for the bill jeopardized my re-election," he said.