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Winning hand

Politics | Abramoff scandal resurrects an effort to curb internet gambling

Issue: "Tighter lips?," Feb. 18, 2006

There's a good chance that in the coming weeks or months, the U.S. House of Representatives will pass a measure making it harder for Americans to gamble on the internet. The very same measure died in the House in 2000 and its chief proponent, Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, has had trouble gaining traction for the bill since then.

But something happened in the past few months to give the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, H.R. 4411, new life. The downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff has spurred Congress to consider reforming the way it does business-from how congressmen use pork to the amount of power and influence lobbyists can exert on Capitol Hill. The rising tide of sentiment for reform helped sweep Ohio Republican John Boehner, a self-styled reformer, into power as the new House majority leader.

But what does any of that have to do with keeping Americans from using credit cards or bank drafts to fund accounts on offshore internet gambling websites? The substance of Mr. Leach's prohibition on online gambling may have nothing to do with lobbying reform-but it has everything to do with Jack Abramoff.

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When Mr. Leach pushed his internet gambling ban in 2000, a company named eLottery hired Mr. Abramoff to fight the bill. In turn, Mr. Abramoff paid conservative Christian leaders Ralph Reed and, according to a Washington Post report, Traditional Values Coalition president Lou Sheldon, who both subsequently campaigned against the internet-gambling prohibition. Mr. Abramoff's call to arms worked: Despite broad support, the internet-gambling prohibition died in Congress in 2000."With the benefit of hindsight, we know this bill failed because of the Abramoff involvement," said Greg Wierzynski, chief of staff for Mr. Leach. "Now that Abramoff has made a guilty plea, we have a chance to show a new leaf has been turned here."

Mr. Wierzynski admits Mr. Leach's office is trying to parlay generalized bad feelings against K-Street lobbyists, Mr. Abramoff, and his gambling industry clients into symbolic support for his bill: "It's only tangentially related, yes. But in appearances, this is a bill that's symbolic or symptomatic of the power of lobbies over legislation." In essence, a victory for Mr. Leach's bill would allow the House to prove that Mr. Abramoff and his illegal machinations did not win.

The arguments by Mr. Leach, a House moderate, have garnered him a small army of conservative House members who also want to use the wave of nebulous reform sentiments in Congress to surf through restrictions on gambling. Rep. John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, campaigned for House majority leader on a platform that focused not only on reform, but also on restricting internet gambling and Indian casinos. Mr. Shadegg lost in the election, but his support was critical to Mr. Boehner's success in a runoff against establishment candidate Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri. Both Mr. Shadegg and fellow evangelical Republican Mike Pence of Indiana have signed on with 21 other co-sponsors of the initiative.

Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder said he made it known to Mr. Boehner that he and other members of Mr. Shadegg's coalition wanted restrictions on gambling as part of any lobby reform package. "The gambling that produces the free-flowing cash-that's the corruption," Mr. Souder told WORLD. "It's time we got serious about the gaming industry."

H.R. 4411 at a glance

Internet gambling is illegal in the United States in most cases, but that didn't stop more than 7.8 million Americans from placing bets online last year with offshore companies. Rep. Jim Leach's Unlawful Gambling Enforcement Act would seek to hamstring the $12 billion industry by making it illegal to use credit cards or bank drafts from American financial institutions to fund online accounts with web gambling services.

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