On December 23, online gambling was legalized in the United States — not because of an act of Congress, but rather because of an independent decision made by Justice Department officials.
In 1961, Congress passed the Wire Act, which bans gambling over the wire. Courts have consistently ruled that the Wire Act bans Internet gambling. In 2006, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA), which reinforced the Wire Act and further protected vulnerable communities by stopping the expansion of illicit online gambling.
Then, in 2011, a group of pro-Internet-gambling states — desperate for more revenue — and foreign-owned gambling companies began lobbying the Justice Department to circumvent Congress’ intended protections by reinterpreting the Wire Act. As Congress was leaving for Christmas, the Justice Department quietly rolled back the Wire Act’s application, limiting its authority to sports gambling and effectively legalizing all other forms of online gambling.
The decision opened the floodgates for states to accelerate plans, many of which are already underway, to not only sell lottery tickets online, but also offer government-run, casino-like games on the Internet, which would generate millions of dollars of revenue for cash-strapped state governments.
States have moved quickly to exploit this new interpretation. Less than 100 days after the Justice Department’s ruling, Obama’s home state of Illinois became the nation’s first online seller of lottery tickets. And less than 200 days after the decision, Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton wrote, “The state could organize the first major poker pool, garner worldwide popularity, and position itself as a ‘hub’ for multi-state and international iGaming.”
The circumstances surrounding the Justice Department’s decision — especially Illinois’ readiness to go digital — raise troubling questions about the administration’s policy-making process. By overturning a half-century of bipartisan rulemaking, the Justice Department gave President Obama’s home state a vital new source of funding that can help alleviate the state’s budget burdens by earning money off the backs of its most vulnerable citizens.
On May 17, I joined 11 other family-advocacy leaders, including Gary Bauer, Dr. Richard Land and Penny Nance, to urge Congress to once again protect vulnerable Americans from the proliferation of illegal Internet gambling.
More specifically, our letter to the leadership in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives highlights the threats this ruling poses to young people. About 97 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 participate in some form of online gaming, making them attractive targets for gambling marketing as well as illegal and fraudulent operators.
The lottery also preys on low-income families. Despite tough economic times, state lottery sales have boomed since 2008. In fact, nearly half of America’s lotteries set all-time records in 2011, while record-level unemployment rates have spread across the country.
Congress still has an opportunity to reassert its legislative authority and re-establish its intent to prevent online gambling. With fast-moving legislation on the horizon in Illinois as well as a number of other states, however, we cannot afford to have a divided Congress stall on this issue.
The online gambling decision was not a product of the legislative process, but rather a result of Attorney General Eric Holder’s crude and questionable policymaking. I strongly urge Congress to restore the legislative branch’s authority to make law, reinstate the decades-old interpretation of the Wire Act and strengthen UIGEA. We cannot allow unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats to erode the safeguards Congress has previously established.
Matt Smith is the president of the Catholic Advocate.