Jason Chaffetz, one of the chief congressional proponents of a federal ban on internet gambling, announced on Wednesday that he will not seek re-election in 2018, lending a degree of assurance that the activity will not be outlawed in the U.S. anytime soon.
The Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had been a leading sponsor of the Restoration of America’s Wire Act – a controversial measure pushed by Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson and other internet gambling opponents – in Congress.
RAWA sought to reverse a 2011 ruling by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that overturned a long-held interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act that prohibits gambling over the internet. Under the revised interpretation, the department held that the original law only applied to sports betting and not to intrastate commercial gaming or lottery games operated over the internet.
The ruling effectively punted the online gambling to the states, and since 2011, three states – New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada – have implemented the activity through a legal and regulated framework. Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan are currently mulling internet gambling legislation of their own.
Chaffetz has been a leading sponsor of RAWA, introducing the legislation in both 2014 and 2015 and holding a series of subsequent hearings examining the bill.
The most noteworthy such event came in December 2015, when a hearing he called to publicize the problems of internet gambling and the Wire Act re-interpretation quickly turned chaotic and delivered the opposite result – ultimately torpedoing any chance of the bill’s passage in the 114th Congress.
While there were fears that RAWA would be passed at the last minute during the lame duck session through a secret agreement between Adelson and outgoing Nevada senator Harry Reid, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House scuttled such concerns.
RAWA has yet to be re-introduced in the first three months of the 115th Congress, but internet gambling proponents are on edge following comments by Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicating that he would revisit the Wire Act re-interpretation.
The comments were made during his confirmation hearing in January upon questioning by Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who is also a RAWA sponsor.
“Rep. Chaffetz leaving the House has virtually no effect on RAWA’s prospects since it is functionally dead already. It was his Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that exposed widespread and bipartisan opposition to the federal ban on internet gambling, leaving proponents with only one recourse: to turn to administrative agencies as a means to halt state-based legalization,” said Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “If Chaffetz runs for and wins a Senate seat, that could change the landscape, but for now the ball is in Jeff Sessions’ court.”
Gambling Compliance reported earlier this week that gaming lobbyists in Washington are growing increasingly concerned that an announcement to revisit the ruling is forthcoming from Sessions’ Justice Department.
While Chaffetz’s exit will put internet gaming proponents at ease over the long term, he will remain in his seat – and able to re-introduce the legislation – until the end of 2018.