If ever there were an issue that could motivate young Americans to leave the safety of their couches and head to the polls, I think Washington just found it.

Angela Cesere

About two weeks ago, House Democrats and Republicans joined hands in opposition to an industry that they claim threatens to cripple our precious youth. No, it wasn’t Hezbollah; the evil dragon the House of Representatives decided to slay was Internet gambling.

The popularity of online gambling has blossomed in the last decade. Nearly one million Americans engage in some form of Internet gambling every day and, according to the CBS News, online gambling is now a $12-billion industry. Nothing this popular and this profitable could ever escape the grasp of Congress.

Republicans heeded the calls of the “family values” lobby, comprised of concerned parents who are comfortable with the fact their sons and daughters are staying at home on Friday nights counting cards but uncomfortable with their latest credit-card statements. Democrats, always looking for new ways to churn out tax revenue, realized that since free-trade agreements prevent American regulation of an industry based primarily offshore, they might as well kill the industry. They’d rather have no industry than no tax revenues.

The House legislation essentially broadens Justice Department powers under the 1961 Wire Act to include online gambling forums. Congress originally wrote the Wire Act with the intention of banning telephone bookmakers, but with the World Trade Organization ruling that the Wire Act does not apply to offshore Internet gambling sites, it’s time to update the law. By banning the use of credit-card payments to Internet gambling sites and perhaps access to the sites themselves, the House intends to stop the flow of money into offshore coffers. The Internet gambling lobby was impotent in the face of Congressional opposition for two reasons – Jack Abramoff is behind bars and their colleagues in Las Vegas lined up against them.

Back in 2000, when Congress last tried to pass the legislation, Jack Abramoff lead a coalition on behalf of online lotteries to prevent a complete shutdown of Internet gambling. With Abramoff in jail and state lotteries and betting on horse racing exempted from the new legislation, the “brick and mortar” gambling industry gladly supported Congress’s ban. With their primary competition potentially ruined by congressional mandate, riverboat and land casinos expected to see more business.

I am aware of all the negative effects gambling can have on a person’s life – from owing creditors to destroying families. I recognize the government’s right to tax an industry that generates revenue off of the citizenry. But I cannot agree with the government essentially engaging in rank hypocrisy.

First, the idea that Internet wagers on state lotteries and horse racing are exempt tells us all we need to know about the priorities of our legislators. They have no problem if your gambling leads to more revenues for your state and they turn a blind eye to a popular activity in the states of two powerful senators – Tennessee (Bill Frist) and Kentucky (Mitch McConnell). But don’t you dare come home for work and play Texas Hold ‘Em against people from halfway across the world.

Second, one issue that most Americans tend to agree on is that investing money – whether in the stock market or government bonds – is a good idea. But is the act of investing your money any different from placing bets? After all, both offer profits based on the expectation/performance relationship and you can lose just as much money with a bad investment as you can by catching a bad run of cards.

For those who argue against Internet gambling on the grounds it can become an addictive vice – why tolerate alcohol consumption? Drinking alcohol in abundance can ruin families and lives just as easily as degenerate gambling, but American society learned that prohibition was not worth the trouble. Furthermore, I think we realize people can drink a sensible amount of alcohol and not ruin their home lives in the process. Why can’t the same be true with Internet gambling?

The Senate can still make up for the House’s mistake by passing legislation that allows the government to regulate Internet gambling – via taxes and regulations – without shutting down the industry. Otherwise, I fear millions of American college students will be forced to learn that their computers have more useful purposes.

Stiglich can be reached at jcsgolf@umich.edu.

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