My colleague Dan Mitchell has already written about the tax deal reached between President Obama and congressional Republicans. But there might be something in the package for people wishing to play poker freely online.
Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is apparently circulating draft legislation to overturn the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which blocked financial institutions from processing transactions with online gambling companies. I would characterize that as a good move overall, apart from three quibbles. First, the draft legislation would -- you guessed it --place a tax on the wagers (you didn't think you'd get your freedom back without conditions, did you?). Second, the bill applies only to poker, and continues to prohibit "Internet gambling" more broadly. And third, the fine-print sounds problematic from a trade policy (and trade law) point of view:
...Mr. Reid's office is considering language that would allow only existing casinos, horse tracks and slot-machine makers to operate online poker websites for the first two years after the bill passes, which could limit the ability of other companies to enter the market.
Carving out this fast-growing market for established gambling service providers sets off my protectionist alert. The cosy little cartel wouldn't just exclude domestic potential competitors; I wrote a short paper a few years ago on how the UIGEA got the United States into hot water with the World Trade Organization, and the same arguments apply today. The United States still -- despite vague, and so far empty, talk about changing its commitments with WTO members -- has an obligation under the General Agreement on Trade in Services to open its market to online gaming operators abroad.
Politico has more about the groups supporting this move, suggesting (as are many Republicans opposed to internet gambling) that Reid has seen religion on online poker in direct response to the campaign contributions he received from gambling interests. I'm not so much interested in that angle --politicians responding to special interests is hardly news -- as I am in the substance of what the legislation is proposing. And if the following reporting from Politico is accurate, the substance is troubling enough :
The National Indian Gaming Association is opposing Reid’s effort to insert the online poker language in any tax cut bill, said an official with the group, Jason Giles. He asserted it gives an advantage to Las Vegas-based gambling operators while discriminating against tribal operators.
“It is drafted to create an initial regulatory monopoly for Nevada and New Jersey for the first several years of the bill, which gives Las Vegas operators time to capture the market,” he said.
A gambling industry insider familiar with Reid's efforts said Republican-leaning Vegas casino moguls Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson, while generally supportive of Reid’s legislation, take issue with provisions that could allow companies that previously operated in violation of online gambling laws to cash in.
The UIGEA is/was a nightmare for online operators to work around, partly because it never really defined "unlawful internet gambling." Therefore, I am not sure how one would determine unambiguously whether a company "operated in violation of online gambling laws". The UIGEA referred to transactions processors rather than gambling companies. And in any case, a few European operators (PartyGaming most famously) withdrew from the U.S. market at the time the UIGEA passed, just to be safe, and yet have continued to face prosecution. The European firms are at the cutting edge of online gaming services. Of course Messrs. Wynn and Adelson would want them out of the picture, but legislators should resist their attempts.
While Reid's proposal may be an improvement on the status quo, it falls far short of restoring the full freedom of consenting adults to use their money, time, and online access in a manner of their choosing. It also is a long way from allowing a competitive, open market in gaming services to thrive. We should see this as a step in the right direction, but not the end game.