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The Death of RAWA: A Performance for an Audience of One

RAWA (H.R. 707) is dying the slow death of bills that aren’t sexy enough to draw attention away from much sexier issues. With the House speakership up for grabs, a looming budget crisis (again), and presidential primaries heating up, folks on the Hill seem to care little about a long-shot proposal to ban Internet gambling. Perhaps this is why an event to discuss the measure—one which featured two former members of Congress and three respected political strategists—attracted just one attendee. That is, there was only one person in attendance 20 minutes into the hour-long event, after three other people (myself included), were asked to leave.

The “Policy Forum” was hosted by The Keelen Group, one of the many lobbying firms hired by Sheldon Adelson to fight the legalization of Internet gambling. Slated to speak at the event was former Congressman Connie Mack, Capitol Counsel lobbyist Aaron Cohen, The Keelen Group’s president and founder Matt Keelen, and Darryl Nirenberg of Steptoe & Johnson, all of whom are registered to lobby for Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. Also listed as a speaker was former U.S. House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts, who was hired by the Adelson-funded Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling in July.

I heard about the event the morning of and I fully expected to be unwelcome, since I’ve been something of a thorn in their collective side for several years. However, after sending an email to the listed RSVP contact (from my CEI account), asking if I could attend, I was surprised to receive somewhat of an enthusiastic reply from a Keelen Group junior lobbyist saying that they’d “love” to have me. Pretty decent of them, I thought, to allow “the enemy” to hear out their arguments.

A 15 minute Uber ride later, I arrived at the Keelen headquarters—an historic townhome on Capitol Hill, about a block from the House office buildings. The event itself took place in a quaint nineteenth century brick carriage house, which one accessed by walking through a well-kept garden on the property. Inside there were was space and chairs for maybe 20 attendees and not much more for speakers. When I arrived at 3pm (the time the event was set to begin) there were three other attendees, one of whom was a representative of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance—a group that along with CEI opposes a federal ban on Internet gambling. Also in the room was that junior Keelen lobbyist and Darryl Nirenberg, the original author of the bill to be discussed.

Nirenberg made his way around the room, introducing himself to attendees. When he got to me I wasn’t sure if he’d know who I was, but once I said I worked with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, his expression changed to a smile that I’d say bordered on contempt. “Oh great, sure,” he said. “I’ve read your stuff.” Then he abruptly began talking to someone else. Not five minutes later, junior Keelen guy asks me to chat outside. “I’m very sorry, but my boss has alerted me that this is a staff only meeting,” he politely told me. “So, unfortunately, since you’re not staff, we can’t have you here right now.” “That’s fair,” I said. I mean, hey, I get it. I’m not sure if I wouldn’t have done the same thing in their shoes.

So, I waited in the peaceful garden outside of the carriage house for about one minute before my friend from the Taxpayer Protection Alliance was also ejected. Later that day I learned that one of the two remaining attendees was also kicked out since she was a PR consultant working against a federal Internet gambling ban. Halfway into their policy forum, five representatives of five firms hired by Sheldon Adelson (who has likely spent over a million dollars on their collective efforts) managed to attract one Hill staffer to their event.

Maybe it was the beautiful weather or the coming long weekend. Maybe a group of 20 staffers showed up five minutes after I left. Or maybe yesterday’s event, along with rumors that RAWA supporters are proposing a different bill, is just another sign that the Restoration of America’s Wire Act is a poison grape shriveling on the vine.

Update:

Immediately after publishing this post, I reached out to The Keelen Group for comment. As of October 8, 2015, I have not yet received a response.