Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is trying to force through a restriction on Internet gambling by incorporating it into the FY 2007 defense appropriations bill, according to reports. By attaching a measure intended to ban Internet gambling to a necessary armed services appropriations bill, Mr. Frist would deprive the members of the opportunity to debate and voice their opposition to this controversial legislation. Indeed, no Senate committee has held a single hearing to debate online gambling prohibition. Although a bill banning Internet gambling passed in the House in July, companion legislation has not yet been introduced in the Senate. Mr. Frist should not be so eager to bypass a much-needed discussion on this legislation.
The legality of Internet gambling, which ranges from casino games to horse racing and lottery, is ambiguous. The Justice Department believes that it’s illegal under the 1961 Wire Act, but, without a successful prosecution, it’s not clear how that argument will stand up in court. Hence the House, led by Republican Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Jim Leach, passed an anti-gambling ban that would update the Wire Act and prevent credit card companies and banks from processing transactions from gambling Web sites, all in order to ban online gambling — with the exception, that is, of the carve outs secured by special-interest groups for online horse racing and the lottery.
We support an individual’s right to be free to gamble online and opposes a proscription on those grounds, and on the grounds that enforcement would be so difficult as to make it untenable. Between our view and the outright prohibition that Mr. Frist supports, however, is the position that regulation could legalize Internet gambling and bring the nearly $4 billion offshore industry back into the United States and under U.S. controls. This is the option that many gambling Web sites and their supporters have advocated, and it is clearly better than the complete moratorium Mr. Frist is trying to push through the Senate.
At the very least, this legislation deserves a thorough debate and vetting. Senators deserve the chance to ask some important questions. Why the carve out for horse racing and the lottery? How will the proposed prohibition function if gamblers use foreign banks not subject to U.S. regulations? And if it gamblers do circumvent the restriction, will federal regulators start banning access to certain Web sites? Or will they start targeting individual gamblers?
These are questions that should not be thrown to the wind, but will be if Mr. Frist succeeds and the legislation becomes a part of the defense appropriations bill.