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Ex-“superlobbyist” Abramoff says PASPA repeal will require “tectonic shift”

By Aaron Stanley

The American Gaming Association’s signature campaign in the coming years will be a major initiative to push a congressional repeal of the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

Through a coalition of gaming, sports, media and states’ rights entities, the group has begun mounting an all-out assault on the 25-year-old law that largely prohibits sports betting outside of Nevada. As soon as the 115th Congress is sworn in in late January, the effort will be brought to Capitol Hill – with the stated goal of having sports betting-enabling legislation on President Donald Trump’s desk within three to five years.

While public perception appears to be in-line with this endeavor, former Washington insider and Republican “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff had some sobering words for anyone who thinks repealing PASPA will be a slam dunk.

“I would imagine it’s going to be very difficult for them to do it. It’s going to require a tectonic shift to get movement on something like sports betting,” Abramoff said in an interview with CDC Gaming Reports.

Few people understand the nuances of legislative sausage-making better than Abramoff. After beginning his career in the mid-1990s, Abramoff quickly became one of the most feared and lobbyists in Washington. Representing tribal gaming interests, corporate clients, foreign governments and others, he was a mastermind at finding creative ways to protect his clients’ interests through the legislative process and leaving his opponents wondering what hit them.

Though his career unraveled in the mid-2000s amid a scandal that sent him to prison for 43 months, he remains one of the most notorious yet respected lobbyists to ever work the halls of Congress.

“Being on offense and being on defense are two different things in politics and lobbying,” he explained. “Going on offense is very hard, even if it’s for something that’s not controversial. There are a hundred ways to stop something, there is one way to get it through. Reviving something once it’s gone is almost impossible.”

Beyond the intricacies that make getting anything through Congress a challenge, Abramoff said that repealing PASPA will be even more challenging because the narrative on the other side – though it may be weakening – is so strong.

“(Their narrative) may be false, but it’s strong,” he said. “You start doing sports betting and all of a sudden little Billy and Sally playing soccer are going to be betting on their game.”

He said that the decriminalization of sports betting will require a broader shift in not just public opinion, but in the receptiveness of the Washington elites to those changing perceptions.

“I think what’s going happen in America is we’re going to come to a moment where the Washington power base is going to have to respond to public opinion,” he said.

He pointed to marijuana legalization as a harbinger signaling that that shift may be occurring.

“The time is coming, so the question is when that time comes, what’s going to be the attitude toward gambling,” he explained. “As the millennial generation, which seems to be less grounded in opposition to certain – let’s call them ‘morally questionable behaviors’, comes more and more into power, that may be the thing that changes it.”

He also anticipated that because of the importance placed on sports as the country’s major leisure activity, any action that jeopardizes the purity of the game will be met with resistance.

“The irony is that sports may be the last area where people want some purity. They want people to keep the rules, they don’t want infractions, they don’t want people to cheat at golf,” he continued. “That’s sort of the one last area, it seems, with some integrity going on. People are outraged when they hear that Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds juice themselves – that’s ‘Oh my god that’s horrible!’”

But the biggest reason for his downcast prognosis on legalized sports betting remains the inherent inability of Washington politicians to admit that they’ve made a mistake.

To illustrate, he referenced his efforts during the mid-1990s to protect the garment manufacturing industry on the Northern Mariana Islands from an attempt by Congress to increase the U.S. territory’s minimum wage. The wage increase was passed once Abramoff was out of the picture, and it resulted in the industry’s destruction as it was unable to compete with other East Asian manufacturers.

“As soon as I was off the case, the Congress passed it and it crushed them,” he said, adding that once Congress became aware of the repercussions, it simply looked the other way.

“Once they did there’s no going back. They basically left them out to suffer. That’s what Washington does, they leave people out to suffer. When they have a mistake, they just stop looking.”