An Exclusive Interview With Congressman Joe Barton By Wendeen H. Eolis
During the past month, Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) has been on the move in his quest to bring about federal legislation favorable to online poker with an equally favorable revenue component for government.
At the end of June, the Congressman hit the road for his 3rd annual visit to the World Series of Poker—this time, to preview his latest federal legislative bill before introducing it into the U.S. House of Representatives. The official introduction of his newly minted bill H.R. 2666, the Internet Poker Freedom Act of 2013, followed on July 12.
Days later, Barton held a telephone press conference to discuss the new bill which “establishes a program for the licensing of Internet poker by States and federally recognized Indian tribes, and for other purposes.” The teleconference was attended by media outlets across the country, including this reporter. However, it wasn’t until last week, when I met with the Congressman in his congressional office in Washington, D.C., that I got the complete picture of where he stands on poker and poker legislation. At the end of this day, Barton remains as unclear as anyone on the likely time table for passage of federal legislation to legalize online poker, by the Congress, but he exudes confidence that day will come.
Barton Invokes the President’s Name
Barton is methodical. He is an engineer by training. He is a seasoned politician. He has held his Congressional seat since 1984. He rates himself as a good amateur poker player. By all accounts from mutual friends, this is an understatement. With a slight twinkle in his eye and a poker player’s understanding of a well-placed semi-bluff, Barton goes further than mere prediction in stating that he expects President Obama to sign his legislative bill to legalize online poker, if it reaches his desk.
Barton talks the talk at poker tables and he walks the walk around the House in gambits to prod progress on the right online poker bill. He seeks a sensible federal law that will allow online poker in states that are so inclined, under the best conditions for all concerned.
He is also a pragmatist who recognizes the road will not be easy. His latest online “poker only” bill, like the others in which he has been intimately involved, previously, is designed to exempt poker from the category of “games of chance” which are subject to anti-gambling statutes. During our hour-long visit in Washington and a subsequent telephone call, Barton resonated as “the genuine article.”
Barton Comprehends Poker as a Skill Game
A poker player since his days as a boy scout, Barton says he came to appreciate poker as a game of skill decades before dispositive research by erudite academicians and federal Judge Jack Weinstein’s confirming opinion in U.S. v DiCristina last year. And, he praises poker for “the life skills it teaches,” noting their utility “in business and politics as well as poker games.”
Nuts and Bolts and Finishing Touches on the Barton Bill
The current Barton “poker only” online gambling bill, like predecessor bills he supported as a co-sponsor with former Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA), as well as those for which he has been the lead sponsor, “carves out” poker from federally based anti-gambling statutes.
Barton says he is confident that in time, the necessary consensus will be reached to pass appropriate legislation to allow for online poker bets in America. And— he claims to know that President Barack Obama would give a “thumbs up” on his “poker only” bill.
Barton’s Bill: Update Crib Notes
Barton has been a vocal proponent of online poker in recent years, believing if adults want to play poker at their computers in pajamas, they should be permitted to do so—within suitable parameters.
In talking about his current legislative effort, he draws my attention to some of the updated language in his current bill. He explains it brings Indian tribes into the tent, puts “bad actors” convicted of a felony into a penalty box, allows for states to “opt out” and permits debit, but not credit cards, for transactions.
Barton says, “We’ve put a lot of effort into creating a bill that makes sense. I think that anybody who looks at the bill I introduced a month ago has to admit that it’s practical, and I think they would admit that it’s fair. We have a piece of legislation now – that regardless of where you are on the issue – you have to say it’s credible and would work…if it becomes law.”
He observes, “I’m not a gaming Congressman, meaning we don’t have casinos in my state. I’m a person who loves the skill and strategy involved in poker. I don’t play online for money, but I think that people should be allowed to. If their states allow them, they ought to be able to go into an online poker room and know they are fair and honest; that their money is protected; and they will win or lose based on the merit – that they won’t be defrauded or scammed. “
An Eye Out for Co-Sponsors
Barton is taking his time in walking the corridors in the House to chat up compatriots about his current bill. He plans to make the pitch, personally. In the interim, he mostly demurs, “Just look at the people who sponsored the bill in the last Congress, if they are still in the House it is a pretty good bet they are going to be on the bill this year. I’ve talked to some members specifically and asked them to co-sponsor the legislation and they’ve all said yes. I hope to come out with the list soon.”
In contrast to Frank’s admonitions to the poker world that it was the job of players to rev up support for his legislative bill, Barton makes clear that he considers it his responsibility to act as a prime mover. Frank’s interest in online poker legislation was tied squarely to his civil libertarian agenda. Barton’s rap is a bit different.
In an obvious effort to differentiate his bill from the pork barrel antics of legislation designed to please special interests or express thanks for fundraising on his behalf. Barton states, “I’m in this for the long haul. This isn’t like trying to name a post office in your district; it’s a serious legislative effort.”
Barton’s Nemesis: I. Nelson Rose
Barton has good reason to make this point. Shortly after introducing his online poker bill in 2011, Whittier law school professor, I. Nelson Rose, the pre-eminent scholastic gambling law expert pointedly questioned Barton‘s motivations and credibility as a friend of online poker. Rose wrote for his well-known website, gamblingandthelaw.com, “The Congressman seems to only have come out in favor of online poker when he discovered that he could use it to get political donations.”
Rose pointed to facts–Barton’s voting record in the U. S. House of Representatives, to make his case against the Congressman. He noted that Barton voted to ban internet gambling by credit card in 2003 and voted for passage of UIGEA in 2006. He pushed the envelope even further in explaining that while Barton was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in early 2006, he gave up the right to use his committee to modify an earlier version of the UIGEA bill that was enacted.
Rose softened his tone of disdain somewhat thereafter in an interview with Marco Valerio of QuadJacks Radio —after taking harsh criticism from movers and shakers in the poker industry. Both the Poker Players Alliance, the active grassroots poker advocacy group that counts more than a million members, and Mason Malmouth, the owner of the popular Two Plus Two online poker forum, disagreed with Rose’s take on Barton’s increasingly active support of online poker.
Barton Camp Answers Rose
Rose’s questions on Barton’s evolved stance fade in the face of the Congressman’s articulated perspective, say Barton colleagues who admire his science grounded intellect and integrity. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, one Barton friend quips, “Rose is well-placed as a professor at Whittier Law School.” According to the Daily Caller, a Washington, D. C. –based website which is part of the White House Rotating Press Pool, Whittier is the lowest ranked ABA accredited law school in the nation. The same Tucker Carlson-founded website once called Barton “a lesson in contradictions.”
Barton Explains His Evolved Stance
In our interview, I sidestepped the not quite forgotten Rose brouhaha. Instead I looked for answers to explain Barton’s curious voting record, as disclosed by Rose, through non-confrontational questions.
Barton is one of the few legislators around the country that actually is an avid recreational poker player. He comments, “Poker is an all-American game. Just like millions of other players, I enjoy the strategy and skill involved.” An online poker player, albeit only for play money, since the late nineties, Barton talks like a man who never dreamed that UIGEA would target online poker for lethal prosecution! And, his public posture in recent years seems clear and consistent: “I think adults should have a right to play.”
Barton’s fundamental support for federally based online poker legislation is made similarly clear by his “Opt Out” provision. He tells me, “I decided it’s better to start out–better politically– with everybody in the game and the ‘opt out’ is real easy. It just takes a governor… or an Indian tribe to say we don’t want to do it.”
As to his opposition to credit cards, Barton indicates he drafted his latest bill to allow the use of debit cards, preferring to avoid the use of credit to pay for such “recreation.” He says in a soft Southern drawl, “I hope that is the biggest issue with my bill.”
Barton is Pro Poker Through and Through!
Barton reflected on his association with poker beginning with a vignette. He spoke of his Dad’s poker experience with the likes of the late Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, touting his enthusiasm and success at the game until his maternal grandfather expressed disapproval of poker as a professional endeavor. Before Barton Senior married the Congressman’s mother, he gave up poker. Barton’s parents never barked at their son’s more casual interest in the great American pastime.
As an adult, Barton stumbled into blackjack. But, his basic strategy skills proved profitable only to the house, leading him back to his longtime affection for poker. He says, “I bought a poker strategy book. I read it and I started playing online for play money. I finally decided to go to a poker room – not in Las Vegas, but in Shreveport.” He muses, “I just decided I’m going to be good at poker” adding, it forces you to learn how to play the hand you are dealt. He notes, “Poker is the only game you can win without the best hand.”
Barton the Pragmatist
The level of support that Barton can muster to pass a “poker only” federal bill this year is uncertain at best. It is a dicey bet in this Congress, by his own admission.
He addresses the basic intellectual and moral resistance within the Congress. He calls the House leadership “risk averse” and recognizes “considerable risk of failure in taking on an issue unless and until there is major consensus.” He says that consensus has not yet been reached. He acknowledges that a lot of members would rather not deal with gambling issues: “They don’t want to anger constituencies on either side,” unnecessarily.
Barton asserts, “There’s going to come a time – and I don’t know when that balance will be reached – when it makes sense. There will be enough consensus in the country that we need a set of universal rules and regulations that the poker bill will move. I’m absolutely confident of that.”
Early in our conversation, Barton told me that President Obama reached out to him shortly after he was elected –the first time. According to Barton, they discussed online poker, and the president said he would sign a Barton-authored bill to legalize poker on the internet.
The twinkle in Barton’s eye reappeared when I asked if the president’s support back then is meaningful now. Barton gave a thumbs up with one footnote; a companion bill to provide for inherent tax provisions will be part of the package.