Why A Congressional Sports Betting Bill Will Fail In 2018

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Congress and sports betting 2018

The US Supreme Court caused a seismic shift in US gaming policy last week. In a landmark decision, the nation’s high court ruled the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), the 1992 federal law that prohibited states from legalizing sports betting, unconstitutional.

To say it’s been a whirlwind since the decision was rendered on Monday morning is quite an understatement. Even though the ink is barely dry on the Court’s opinion, there’s already a constant stream of activity.

Not surprisingly, it’s been difficult to find the signal among the noise.

One bit of noise that is doing a good job of pretending to be a signal is a proposed federal bill by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch that seeks to create a federal sports betting framework.

The odds of this bill passing before Hatch’s retirement is similar to the Miami Marlins winning the World Series this year.

That doesn’t mean it can’t pass (stranger things have happened — see Leicester City or the Vegas Golden Knights) but it’s the textbook definition of a long-shot and appears to be the sports leagues’ Plan C.

Who’s behind the sports betting legislation?

After leading the charge to prevent the spread of sports betting, the professional sports leagues have seen the writing on the wall for several months. Oral arguments in the Supreme Court in December tipped the chances in favor of New Jersey, and even though the decision was undecided, the leagues began lobbying for a cut of the sports betting pie in several states.

The leagues have taken a lot of losses in their Don Quixote-esque quest for “integrity fees” from states, so it’s not surprising that they recently started shifting their lobbying efforts to the federal stage.

As such, it’s unlikely the Utah senator (one of the original sponsors of PASPA) hatched this plan on his own.

Hatch’s use of the word “integrity” in his statement intimates the bill will be legislation that leagues approve of and could include an integrity fee the leagues have been asking for.

“The rapid rise of the internet means that sports betting across state lines is now just a click away,” Hatch said. “We cannot allow this practice to proliferate amid uneven enforcement and a patchwork race to the regulatory bottom. At stake here is the very integrity of sports.”

A federal sports betting bill faces an uphill battle

Anyone who’s followed federal gaming legislation over the last decade is well aware that the leagues might be barking up the wrong tree. And it’s an expensive tree to boot.

Gambling is the proverbial third rail in politics, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a large group of federal lawmakers that are interested in tackling anything that will be seen as authorizing or prohibiting gambling.

Of course, there’s no shortage of lawmakers that will be more than happy to take the leagues’ money and give their lobbyists guided tours of the Capitol hallways while whispering overly optimistic appraisals of the bill’s chances in their ears.

But make no mistake about it, the bill’s chances of passing are slim to none.

Problem No. 1: Unwinding a bunch of sports betting laws

By the time Congress gets around to sports betting, a half-dozen states could be offering sports betting, or priming the pumps of their sports betting industries.

That means Congress would be undoing legislation in multiple states, and rolling back costly (to businesses and to the state) industries.

If this trickles into the spring of 2019, a federal law might have to unwind a dozen or more state laws.

Further muddying the waters: Each of those states will have a Congressional delegation that will want to protect its state’s interests. That could mean a special carveout or outright opposition.

Problem No. 2: Gambling is typically a state-level issue

Whether Congress intends to prohibit sports betting or create a national framework, it’s ambling into dangerous political territory.

In addition to the delegations from states with sports betting laws, sports betting legislation will run into the same problem that has turned a possible online gambling ban into a mothballed piece of legislation: Gambling policy is historically left up to the states.

With its decision, the Supreme Court has done just that; left the issue of sports betting up to the states. A new federal sports betting bill would be taking that away.

Where that gets tricky is within the Republican caucus, considering if you were to ask them to rank their favorite amendments, most Republican lawmakers would put the Tenth Amendment (states’ rights) in the No. 2 spot just behind the Second Amendment (freedom to bear arms).

Without even delving into the politics of gambling within the Democratic caucus, that will make support very difficult to come by.

Problem No. 3: Election year klaxon

Controversial legislation is difficult under the best of circumstances, and suffice it to say, mid-term election years are far from the best of circumstances.

That’s particularly true in 2018:

Basically, the last thing candidates are going to want to do is field questions about sports betting.

Problem No. 4: Congress is completely dysfunctional

Finally, let’s not overlook the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Congress has trouble funding the government for more than a few weeks at a time.

If you believe Congress is going to suddenly get its act together and have a kumbaya moment over sports betting I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.