Internet Poker Hearings Give Reason for Optimism

Online Poker Hearings

Say it together, poker players: We're good enough, we're smart enough, and doggone it, people on Capitol Hill like us.

Two congressional hearings addressed the prospects of Internet poker last week in a mostly positive way.

Watching Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), known for his character of self-help guru Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s, at Thursday's hearing in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee brought to mind his character's daily affirmations, paraphrased in the opening paragraph.

Perhaps we are reading too much into these hearings and trying, much like Stuart Smalley in repeating his mantra into a mirror, to talk ourselves into believing that the U.S. government really is coming around to recognize our right to participate in this activity. But every discussion of poker on Capitol Hill this year has given the impression that lawmakers are trying to figure out how, not if, to best license and regulate online poker.

The main theme of the Indian Affairs Committee hearing was that the tribes want to be included in the planning stages of any bill before it is passed and want the equal opportunity to begin offering online poker at the same time as the Nevada casinos. A video of the hearing and written testimony from each of the witnesses, including Poker Players Alliance chairman Alfonse D'Amato, can be viewed at the official committee website.

Friday's House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade hearing had a couple of surprise witnesses. Barney Frank] (D-Mass.) joined John Campbell (R-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) on the panel of congressmen.

In her opening statement, chairman Mary Bono Mack asked: “When it comes to the debate over legalizing Internet gambling, is it time for Congress to let the genie out of the bottle? Or is the genie already online with a pile of chips playing Texas hold'em?”

Wolf was the first truly anti-poker witness to testify on Capitol Hill this year. He focused on gambling being a dangerous and addictive activity, claiming that the legalization of Internet poker would be “a windfall to the most powerful gambling interests in this country at the expense of American families and taxpayers.” He even pulled a Spencer Bachus and called Internet gambling the “crack cocaine of gambling.”

As Stuart Smalley would say to Wolf, “Denial ain't just a river in Egypt!”

Frank effectively neutered Wolf's arguments by noting that he is a co-sponsor of Wolf's bill to establish and implement programs for the prevention, treatment and research of problem gambling, and that regulation would better address that issue while not preventing the majority of people without a gambling problem from partaking in the activity.

“Enacting legislation to license, regulate, and tax online gambling as well as implement problem gambling programs, would bring this industry out of the shadows, benefit consumers, create American jobs, capture revenue and allow adults to enjoy freedom from unnecessary government interference,” Frank said.

The second panel featured American Gaming Association president Frank Fahrenkopf, Nevada Gaming Control Board chairman Mark Lipparelli, New Hampshire Lottery Commission executive director Charles McIntyre and, a late addition, Rachel Volberg, a research scientist at the University of Chicago with a specialization in the study of problem gambling.

Fahrenkopf, in his first in-person congressional testimony on the topic, proved to be an engaging speaker for the cause. He admitted that the AGA had previously opposed online poker but claimed that technological advances have proven to the organization that the industry could be regulated to protect Americans.

“At the last hearing, you asked whether licensing and regulation of online poker is a safe bet,” Fahrenkopf said. “Our industry believes it is. The risky bet would be to leave unchanged current law that leaves consumers, minors and those with gambling problems vulnerable to unregulated offshore companies.”

Asked if strengthening the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act should take precedence or happen prior to regulation, Fahrenkopf answered that he believed both could be accomplished at the same time.

Lipparelli testified that Nevada is ready to effectively regulate online poker and that regulation can, under modern technologies, effectively deal with underage gaming, problem gambling, money laundering and collusion.

The full written testimonies from the House hearing can be viewed at the subcommittee's official website and video of the hearing can be viewed on USTREAM.

“Most people, including members of the subcommittee, seemed to be supportive of the concept of a poker-only bill,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), a member of the subcommittee who introduced a poker licensing and regulation bill earlier this year, said in a statement following the hearing.

“I think we moved the ball forward and are getting closer to making this bill a law. I think the votes are there in the subcommittee, the whole committee and on the House floor.”

It's enough to make the Stuart Smalleys in all of us confident in the future of online poker.

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