WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is a big poker player, traveling to Indian casinos in Oklahoma several times a year to try his hand — don't say "luck," since the lawmaker insists that it's a game of skill. So he wants all lovers of the game to be able to play anytime, and that means online.
"Poker is the all-American game. I learned to play poker, believe it or not, in the Boy Scouts," Barton said Tuesday at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. "If you learned something in the Boy Scouts it has to be a good thing."
The Justice Department cracked down in April on popular Internet poker sites that were operating despite a 2006 law against Internet gambling, and Barton argued Tuesday for his bill allowing legal poker websites.
"People are playing poker on the Internet for money in the United States today," Barton said at a hearing of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee. "These sites are offshore, overseas, and consequently outside the ability for us to tax the winnings and regulate it to make sure it is a fair game."
While many people are concerned about underage gambling, addictive behavior and rips in the societal fabric, Barton and unlikely allies Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Ron Paul, R-Texas, say a regulated industry can include protections, be taxed and raise considerable revenue.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., the subcommittee's chairman, left no simile unturned in her opening remarks: "In many ways, the debate over legalizing Internet gambling is a lot like Texas Hold 'em poker. Three cards are dealt face up."
She continued: "Is the further expansion of gambling in the United States a good bet? Can online gambling be regulated effectively? And what role should the federal government play to protect American consumers from 'sharks'? This is the 'flop' we've been dealt for today's hearing."
Later, in a tweet Tuesday afternoon, she said, "Internet gambling hearing has been great but there are still so many unanswered questions. Need to dig deeper."
The panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, asked witnesses about the effect on society but also signaled the congressional need to find new sources of revenue.
"Considering the fragile and struggling state of our national economy, I strongly believe that we must give serious consideration to the economic boon that could result from legalizing Internet gaming," Butterfield said. "Hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues could be realized by struggling states, and tens of thousands of jobs could be created all across the country to directly support the newly installed industry."
Barton said that for states concerned about the legalization of gambling, his legislation included an option allowing them to opt out of the plan. However, a representative of Indian tribes, Ernest Stevens, the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, questioned the effect of the proposed law on the tribes, which are considered sovereign.
Supporters of legalizing Internet gaming said protections could be installed with software that identified a player's characteristics to keep children and "deadbeat" parents from playing online.
Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., who represents the Poker Players Alliance, even called poker "the great American pastime."
Congress has taken a hard line in the past on Internet gaming, however, passing in 2006 the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The law is designed to prevent gambling websites from using the banking system to process checks, credit cards or electronic transfers.
In April, the Justice Department charged the owners of three of the largest Internet poker companies — Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and PokerStars — with fraud, alleging that they tricked regulators and banks into processing billions of dollars of illegal Internet profits.
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