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Girding For The Rough Road Ahead -- National Gaming Reform...By Nelson Lardner

There was a brief flurry of optimism late last month, when a rumor pervaded the London bourse to the effect that Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank was contemplating making a quick run at reversing last October's infamous midnight passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

The rumor brought brief cheer to the hearts of shellshocked stateside players, while also giving a temporary boost to the battered shares of major sector player PartyGaming. Suspect that coincidental takeover talk was also instrumental in that brief rally, which quickly found itself becalmed after cooler heads prevailed - and after a spokesman for Rep. Frank said that no such legislative drive was on the immediate horizon, though Frank remains friendly to the broad concept of online gaming under the right conditions.

Warily doing everything possible to protect good relations with regards to the religious-right constituency to which its immediate-term prospects are beholden, the GOP long ago cast its lot regarding this and other actions offensive to the bluenoses who can't countenance the thought of someone - somewhere -- having a good time.

You're hearing relevant verbiage from House committee leaders, especially since the GOP received its "enough, already" message from the electorate last November. Many Dems enjoying considerable longevity, but operating in the shadows since the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" salad days found themselves back in the saddle, with Frank now head of the House's Financial Services Committee, and the likes of Michigan's John Conyers, Jr., now at the head of the Judiciary Committee.

In the past, Rep. Conyers has frequently been heard to speak in favor of legalized online sports wagering. Like many, he felt the prevailing law intrusive, finding the idea of stateside financial institutions forced into the role of cyber-snoops/cops to be extremely distasteful. Also like many, Conyers drew the obvious parallel between Prohibition (another failed effort to legislate morality, with a number of ugly side effects that linger today) and the current online situation. Conyers has long wanted the broad situation researched by a House study group, and if that procedure was deemed fruitful . . . legalized, with proprietors licensed, regulated and taxed.

Politics and poker (a connection long-since immortalized in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello, in the song of the same name) both place a great premium on position. One of ex-Senator John Edwards' advantages in the current scramble for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is that he's no longer a sitting senator, so he can be more outspoken about his opposition to the Iran war, unlike others who voted for the original resolution.

Like Conyers, Frank's sinecure-like status in Congress is assured by his sustained control of a district loaded heavily in favor of his party (Massachusetts' Fourth). Citizens devoted to the pursuit of action should be grateful for this positional advantage, as it permits Frank, Conyers and others like them to speak out on topics such as this . . . topics which those in more competitive districts are likely to sidestep, following the political principle that one should avoid actively supporting minority positions which might provoke too many swing voters to prefer your opponent.

Don't look for any quick reversal of Bill Frist's gaily-wrapped holiday gift to the evangelicals. The current posturing of the Bush regime's Department of Justice tells you all you need to know about any possible near-term breakout of sanity in the oversight of this sector. It took more than a decade to rid the country of the rank stupidity that was Prohibition (itself incubated under a Democratic administration, and largely pushed along by the do-gooder/suffragette wings of both parties). Neither party is wholly guiltless in these policy areas. The Republicans are busily looking to curtail access to certain adult pleasures whose existence displeases their hardcore base, while Democrats have historically been "nanny-state"-style busybodies in the drinking/smoking/trans-fats arenas.

Libertarianism is almost certainly unworkable as a pure doctrine applied to a diverse society, but millions of people - including most serious gamblers - find much to like about the basic school of thought. Defending gamblers in the public arena is a tough sell - the poker players, who enjoy a far more effective public lobby than sports bettors, have found that out to their sorrow. But Frank and Conyers don't expect immediate results. They're sowing seeds. Jobs and additional tax revenues are the carrots that figure to eventually lead this issue to the promised land, but it'll require patient, judicious stewardship to get this horse home.

Nelson Lardner

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