Features

Diversionary tactics

National | How some tried to trip up the commission

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace sports a healthy dose of dead-on political commentary. "The Republic," as George Lucas's coalition of far-flung, fictitious star systems is known, is governed by a senate held hostage by special interests; Chancellor Valorum, the speaker of this body politic, is held hostage by squabbling bureaucrats. When Mr. Lucas's heroine, Queen Amidala, appears before the senate to demand an end to the blockade of her home planet by the greedy Trade Federation, Valorum tries a time-buying technique patented millennia earlier on the Washington Beltway: He proposes establishing a commission to study the problem. Back here in the 20th century, the Beltway churns out water-treading commissions faster than citizens can say "no new taxes." But the National Gambling Impact Study Commission wasn't one of them. That commission, which began its study in July 1997 and wrapped up its business on June 3, cut to the heart of an issue that dominated the 1998 elections in at least 10 states-and found itself the target of bureaucratic squabbling and special-interest attacks. Saboteur-in-point: Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), who has since 1991 received more than a quarter of a million dollars in political contributions from the gambling industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a liberal watchdog group. Mr. Bryan asked the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate purported wrongdoing by the commission staff, says Focus on the Family president James Dobson, who served on the commission's nine-member panel. GAO scrutineers came up empty, but this diversionary tactic required gambling commission staffers to complete hundreds of hours of unnecessary paperwork, on the taxpayers' time. Sen. Bryan's press secretary denied that the GAO investigation was designed to interfere with the commission. Attempts to limit the commission's power also took place higher in the food chain. President Clinton had at first expressed a willingness to grant the commission subpoena authority. But according to a 1997 article that appeared in the left-wing investigative magazine Mother Jones, Mr. Clinton later announced that he thought the commission's subpoena power should be limited-shortly after playing a round of golf with Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn. Unlike other special interests (organized labor, public education) that lean heavily on Democratic support, the gambling industry straddles the party divide. Majority leader Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who fought the creation of the gambling commission, later stumped for legal gambling in his home state. Former Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, who now heads the American Gaming Association, regularly fired media salvos at the commission. "What would you expect from a man who gets paid $800,000 a year to make the casino industry look good?" Dr. Dobson asked. "His job is to propagandize on the behalf of the industry. And this was a man who said I lacked objectivity."

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