That Congress might once again pursue legislation to legalize interstate Internet poker is a good thing. That Congress is expected to do so as part of a broader ban on all other forms of Internet gambling is disappointing.
Not because full-fledged Internet gaming would be good for Nevada’s casino industry (it wouldn’t), or because unrestricted Web gambling would be good for the country (it wouldn’t).
Bans don’t work. You’d think Congress would understand that fact by now, given how many federal bans have turned into abject policy failures with huge enforcement and economic costs. In fact, that’s the very reason Congress might reverse the current ban on Internet poker.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will serve as minority leader in next year’s session, told the Review-Journal’s Steve Tetreault on Friday that he expects the incoming Republican Congress to pursue a Web gambling ban, and that he’ll seek an exception for Internet poker. Such legislation almost made it into the massive continuing resolution/omnibus bill, thanks to a furious push from Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, one of the country’s strongest Internet wagering opponents — and one of its biggest Republican donors. But his effort failed in the final days of the lame-duck session.
Sen. Reid said stand-alone legislation legalizing Internet poker has no chance of passage. Getting it through Congress, he said, requires a ban on all other forms of Internet gambling.
It’s astounding that Congress must consider such a compromise at all. Just 3½ years ago, Americans enjoyed playing real-money online poker with friends, family and complete strangers from everywhere. Then, in 2011, the Justice Department closed online poker operators with heavy-handed force under a flawed interpretation of the 50-year-old Wire Act.
Later that year, the Justice Department clarified its action by ruling that online poker was just fine, provided games weren’t played across state lines. In 2013, the Nevada Legislature legalized Internet poker with the hope that the federal ban eventually would be lifted, positioning the state and its industry-leading regulatory structure to make Nevada a Web poker hub. Until that happens, Nevada’s Internet poker sites can draw only players who are physically inside the state’s borders. And potential compacts with other states, which would allow Nevada and its partners to pool players, have yet to produce the customer base necessary to grow the Web poker industry. One operator, Station Casinos’ Ultimate Poker, has ceased operations, leaving just Caesars Entertainment and the South Point with poker sites.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to play cards on unregulated, off-shore poker websites. Americans also continue to place wagers through online, unregulated, off-shore sports books. And there are no signs that the collapse of the republic is imminent.
If Congress does, in fact, ban all Internet gambling while exempting poker, illegal Internet gambling will continue. Just as illegal Internet poker continues. The federal government has proved it does not have enough resources to enforce such a ban.
Bans don’t work. But that never stops Washington from imposing more of them.