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Tom Cotton's Last Minute Anti-Gambling Bill

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) fears the Internet. At least, Cotton circa 1998 referred to the Internet as having “too many temptations” to be useful in schools and libraries. Perhaps these previous statements and the Arkansas Republican’s Methodist beliefs led him to introduce S. 3376, “A bill to ensure the integrity of laws enacted to prevent the use of financial instruments for funding or operating online casinos are not undermined by legal opinions not carrying the force of law issued by Federal Government lawyers.” Yes, that is the actual title. What the bill would do should it pass is unclear with industry observers speculating that it could be a stealth i-gambling prohibition, or a way to give previous online gambling laws “teeth,” and prevent the use of credit cards in gambling transactions.

Either way, the bill appears to be an attempt to block states—including his home state of Arkansas—who have chosen to offer legal and regulated avenues for online gambling to citizens within their borders. This is an odd move for a senator who is supposedly such an ardent defender of the Constitution, which reserves powers not given to Congress for states and individuals. Cotton might call attempts to undermine this important principle anticonstitutional. It is even odder that Cotton, who fought terrorism with the U.S. Army after 9/11, has chosen to waste Congress’s time introducing something as frivolous as an Internet gambling bill in a year when we suffered two major terror attacks on American soil. One would think he might have more important legislation on which to spend his time.

Cotton’s sudden interest in Internet gambling may have something to do with his relationship with Sheldon Adelson—casino magnate and prolific GOP donor—who has supported Sen. Cotton’s career for a number of years. Indeed, Adelson has convinced other members of Congress, known for their strong defense of the Constitution, to jump on his i-gambling ban wagon.

Yet, it isn’t actually clear what Cotton’s bill is intended to do. The text of the proposal, released today by the Poker Players Alliance, is just three words longer than the title itself. It states that that the Department of Justice’s 2011 memorandum (which interpreted the 1961 Wire Act as applying only to sports gambling) “shall have no force or effect” for the interpretation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006. This is confusing because, the 2011 DOJ memo didn’t seek to make any interpretation of UIGEA—in fact, the memo specifically notes that they “express no view about the proper interpretation or scope of UIGEA.”

One theory is that the bill is meant as a way to “sneak” an Internet gambling ban through Congress in the final hours without debate. This would make sense considering how previous i-gambling ban bills have miserably failed to gain support when they were debated by Congress. Further support comes from the fact that Cotton introduced a bill three months before the end of the congressional session (when bills not voted on “die”) in an election year. Congress will have precious little time to consider bills before the end of the end of the year, which might give Cotton and friends a chance to attach their proposal to other “must pass” legislation.

Whatever the bill’s purpose and whatever Cotton’s motivation, people of all political stripes should be extremely wary of this bill. Conservatives might find the idea of passing a federal law to limit online gambling attractive, but such a move opens the door for Democrats to target online commerce that they might not like, for example, online gun and ammunition sales. Those who truly care about Internet freedom should also keep an eye on this measure: if the bill ends up defining all Internet commerce as “interstate commerce” (as previous Adelson-backed bills have done) it would set a dangerous precedent for federal involvement in Internet regulation. And, for those of us who care about individual liberties, this bill will almost certainly threaten our right to spend our time and money in the privacy of our own homes however we damn well please.