Five years ago, there was a concerted push in Congress to pass a federal bill that would legalize online gambling. In 2015, efforts to legalize online gambling have been replaced with calls for the prohibition of online gambling.
Fortunately, the fact that online gambling legalization efforts have stalled in Congress isn’t much of a problem anymore.
The ability to legalize online gaming has been handed over to the states thanks to a 2011 OLC opinion that found the Wire Act only applied to sports betting. This ruling left the decision of expanding into online gambling up to individual state legislatures, three of which took the ball and ran it into the end zone: Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey.
Still, one has to wonder, with the current calls to ban online gambling at the federal level, where have all of the online gaming champions in Congress gone? Why are prohibitionists the only voices we are hearing on this issue at the federal level?
In 2009, Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank introduced HR 2267, the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act. At its peak in 2010, HR 2267 had bipartisan support, with 70 cosponsors in the House of Representatives.
It even managed to pass the House Financial Services Committee. A full 16 percent of the House of Representatives had signed on to Frank’s bill.
In addition to the outspoken Frank, Representatives Ron Paul, James Moran, Peter King, and Jim McDermott were among those publicly pushing for the bill.
In 2015, Representative Joe Barton was one of the lone voices in Congress calling for the legalization of online poker (not gambling like Frank’s bill, just poker), as he introduced a bill that would legalize online poker for the third time in five years.
Despite its narrow focus on regulating online poker only, while at the same time strengthening enforcement of prohibitions against other forms of online gambling, Barton’s bill has not even come close to the support Frank had for his 2010 legislation.
Barton’s 2011 legislation, the verbosely-worded Internet Gambling Prohibition, Poker Consumer Protection, and Strengthening UIGEA Act of 2011 (HR 2366), managed to collect eleven cosponsors.
In 2013, Barton’s bill was renamed as the Internet Poker Freedom Act (HR 2666), but the name change didn’t help when it came to support, as it was able to attract just a single cosponsor.
Barton’s 2015 proposal, similarly called the Internet Poker Freedom Act of 2015 (HR 2888), has two cosponsors.
Somehow, the number of cosponsors has gone from seventy to two in five years.
In addition to the OLC taking away the need for Congress to act, poker has experienced a significant decline in popularity (particularly among the mainstream press and on the airwaves) since Barney Frank and Ron Paul were calling for legalization.
In 2010, poker and online poker were booming. UIGEA had scored a glancing blow against the industry in the United States, but it would take the direct hit landed on Black Friday (April 15, 2011) to cripple the online poker industry in the U.S.
Other than the World Poker Tour (now relegated to Sunday nights on the FOX Sports Network) and the World Series of Poker on ESPN, networks have either completely eliminated televised poker shows or they’ve been sent further down the dial and further away from prime time slots.
The only new show of any note that has appeared since 2011 is Poker Night in America, and even it has had to make do on the little-known cable network CBS Sports, and with pushing its live stream on Twitch.tv.
Another factor could be the underwhelming performances of the Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey iGaming industries. In 2010, legalized online gambling was seen as a cash cow, but based on the early returns in the three states with legal online gambling, Congress may no longer think this is the case.
The smart money is on Congress continuing to shun online gaming outside of rhetoric and halfhearted efforts to appease donors for whom online gambling is a pet issue.
Although there is more support for an outright ban of online gambling at the federal level right now — via the Restoration of America’s Wire Act — there’s also not much momentum behind that bill, either.
Thanks to the OLC opinion, Congress can leave the legalization or prohibition of such activities to the states. And for the time being, with little appetite at the federal level to do anything about online poker and gambling, the only legitimate path to regulation remains on a state-by-state basis.