THE FIGHT: Barton Bill is a False Hope

Yesterday Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) introduced the provocatively titled Internet Poker Freedom Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, like a similar measure that Barton introduced in 2011, seeks to legalize online poker on the federal level and was greeted with a muted cheer by U.S. poker players. Muted, because they have learned all too well not to put much hope or stock in Congress.

Despite promising consumer protection for online poker players and job creation in this “new industry”, the IPFA could suffer the same fate as Barton’s 2011 bill. It will compete in the House with a bill introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) seeking to legalize all forms of online gambling except sports betting and with a Republican caucus that is at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to any form of online gaming.

Should the Barton bill somehow make it out of the House, it faces entrenched gridlock in the Senate and a lack of willing co-sponsors from the Republican side of the aisle. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) failed in December 2010 and again in December 2012 to even introduce an online poker bill in the Senate, despite having the support in 2012 of now-retired Arizona Republican senator, Jon Kyl.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could be the key to a federal online poker bill.

If there’s going to be a savior in the Senate, it could be the Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell has never taken a strong pro- or anti-online gaming position. If anything he could be characterized as somewhat against online gaming, reflecting the view of the horse-racing industry that until now has been the primary gambling interest in Kentucky.

However, recent rumors suggest that Kentucky-based Churchill Downs (BLUFF’s corporate parent) is looking into acquiring casino properties outside of Kentucky.  Those moves, if they come to pass, would put Churchill Downs in the ranks of brick-and-mortar casino owners, who generally favor a federal solution for online gaming.

As a new Kentucky-based casino owner, Churchill Downs could become a powerful lobbying ally, able to influence the Minority Leader’s thinking on the issue of online gaming where existing casino owners haven’t had much success. And if McConnell gets on board, maybe some progress can be made in the Senate.

That’s all speculative thinking though. Right now it looks like federal internet poker is resting on the slimmest of slim reeds. There’s no proposal on the table in the Senate, despite weak squawking by Reid that he’s working on one, and Barton’s bill is sure to encounter stiff resistance in the House. Chris Krafcik, the North American Research Director for GamblingCompliance.com, is pessimistic about the bill’s chances.

“Another moribund federal Internet gambling bill hardly constitutes momentum,” Krafcik wrote on Twitter yesterday. “Merely a placeholder to keep lobbying dough flowing.”

Unfortunately, Krafcik’s theory has become common thinking among internet gaming analysts. They believe that federal politicians are happy to play the pro-gambling crowd off of the anti-gambling crowd (and vice versa) in order to reap the reward of federal lobbying money. It’s something of a sport in Washington, and veterans of Congress are quite adept at it.

The likeliest fate for Barton’s bill is a quiet death in a House subcommittee. THE FIGHT to legalize online poker in the U.S. will continue, for sure, but it won’t be fought in Congress.

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Kevin McGrady

Legislative and Politics Beat Writer: Kevin McGrady practiced corporate law in New York City for eight years before moving to Las Vegas in 2008 to join the gaming industry. Kevin is a graduate of New York University and Columbia University School of Law.
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