Online poker turned a corner in its battle with the U.S. government toward the end of 2009. The talk on Capitol Hill in the new year will be more about regulation than prohibition.
There is little doubt that 2010 will be poker's best year yet in terms of political progress. The only question is how far the industry can advance the cause for official legalization and licensing.
The first step will be another meeting held by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) in his House Financial Services Committee. The last session, held in early December, was a hearing or initial discussion. Poker Players Alliance executive director John Pappas expects the next meeting to be a markup in which the committee would make changes to and vote on the Frank-sponsored Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act. Pappas believes a markup will be held by the end of February.
Once the bill, referred to as HR 2267, is passed by the Financial Services Committee, it could go through to the full House. First, two other committees — Judiciary and Energy and Commerce — will have the option of holding their own hearings on the bill. Thus far, those committees have deferred to Financial Services.
If the bill goes in front of the full House, the PPA would push for another hearing at that level. This would be time for the PPA to push its campaigning to new heights, using its million members to gain votes. The bill could stall at this point, never reaching a House markup because it is not likely that the bill's supporters would bring it up for a vote unless it is sure to pass.
Adding urgency for early progress on the legislation is the looming June 1 compliance date for the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The more evidence to show the country is on track to change its laws regarding Internet poker, the better chance another extension on the UIGEA deadline can be secured from the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board.
"You go into the year figuring what can we do before June 1, and then go from there," Pappas said. "We'd like to try to push as much as we can in first part of year."
With it being an election year, there's added importance to get something done in the first six months. During the second half of the year, members of Congress become focused on the their re-election campaigns and spend more time meeting with constituents in their home states and less time in Washington, D.C.
"Traditionally, during an election year, it's very difficult to get any legislation through the second half of the year," Pappas said.
The election also could make it more difficult to get votes on a controversial issue from junior congressmen in tight battles. If the bill can get through the House, the Senate would take up the issue. By this point, it would probably be late in the game for the year. While the PPA spent much of 2009 working on Congress and Frank's bill got 63 co-sponsors, Sen. Robert Menendez's bill — the Internet Poker and Game of Skill Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act — has yet to get another signee.
It seems unlikely that a bill can get all the way through the Senate this year. Unfortunately, poker legislation doesn't get to start next year where it left off in 2010. Even if the issue does reach the Senate, it will have to start over in the House.
There is, however, something to be said for precedent and the likelihood that Congress would respond better and move quickly in the future on bills it has approved in the past. Elections, though, add some uncertainty because new members who assume office will need convincing. The campaigning will have to begin all over again.
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