Old Online Poker Foe Jon Kyl Returns to Senate

Last week, much of the attention of the political world was focused on mourning the death of Senator John McCain, who was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy on Saturday. This week, a final bit of business was taken care of as Arizona Governor Doug Ducey named former Senator Jon Kyl as McCain’s replacement.

Yes, Jon Kyl. Shit.

Other than being the man the White House has leaned on to get Brett Kavanaugh through his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the Senate, Jon Kyl hasn’t been a name we have heard about in the news for a while. So let’s get you caught up, in case you forgot.

Senator Jon Kyl
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

An Original Poker Bad Guy

During the poker boom of the mid-aughts, Kyl was on the Mount Rushmore of online poker enemies. He began his crusade in the late 1990’s – when online poker was so insignificant that most people didn’t even know it existed – penning a bill with Rep. Bob Goodlatte to ban online gambling. The bill exempted state lotteries and horse and dog racing, because those are obviously the healthy, safe, never-problematic forms of gambling. The bill went nowhere, but the reason was because his colleagues were afraid that it wasn’t strong enough and could allow state lotteries to offer online games that resembled slots.

Fast forward to 2006 when Kyl, along with Goodlatte, Senator Bill Frist, and Rep. Jim Leach (that’s your anti-online poker Mount Rushmore) concocted the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA), which didn’t make online poker/gambling illegal, but rather barred the transfer of funds to and from “illegal” internet gambling sites.

Now, while the UIGEA was a bunch of dreck, just because someone introduces legislation that I don’t like doesn’t mean they are a piece of shit. What made Kyl and crew pieces of shit was that they snuck it onto the SAFE Port Act, a must-pass national security bill created just five years after 9/11, at the last moment. There was no discussion in committee, nothing. They knew the bill was going to pass easily and even though some lawmakers did notice the UIGEA and expressed their opposition, there was nothing that could be done. Kyl and his cronies had played the system, attaching anti-online poker language to an unrelated bill that was a shoo-in to pass.

Played the Worst Kind of Politics

Kyl wasn’t done there, though. The UIGEA was a poorly written bill, in that it didn’t properly define what “illegal” internet gambling was. Online poker wasn’t explicitly illegal in the U.S., so while many online poker rooms exited the U.S. market to play it safe, others, like PokerStars and Full Tilt, stayed and built huge empires over the next few years. Because of the vagueness of the bill, it was years until its regulations were published. Many lawmakers wanted extra time to better define “illegal” gambling and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner granted a delay, but in 2010, Jon Kyl threatened to block six Obama Treasury department nominees unless the UIGEA was enforced.

Always Wanted It His Way

Then came the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel’s clarification of the Wire Act at the end of 2011, a ruling that said that the Wire Act made only online sports betting illegal, rather than all online gambling, as had been the incorrect interpretation for years. In a similar way to what is going on now with Senators starting to push for federal regulation of sports betting, the idea that states could legalize and regulate online gambling rustled the jimmies of some lawmakers. While Kyl couldn’t do anything about states legalizing online poker, he could try to rein things in on the federal end, so he and Senator Harry Reid teamed up to pen legislation to legalize and regulate online poker. Yup, Jon Kyl looked like he had just done a face-turn.

And sure, getting online poker legalized on the national level would have been great, but there was a massive problem with the bill, a problem that likely wasn’t just some oversight or accident. It criminalized the playing of poker on unlicensed sites. People could actually face criminal penalties for playing online poker. It was absurd. A later iteration of the bill removed that portion, but it added a clause that said that players could have their money seized from unlicensed sites with no recourse, all in the name of “anti-terrorism.”

The legislation was garbage and never resulted in anything.

So now Jon Kyl is back, though I would never expect him to take up the anti-online poker mantle this go-around. There’s no reason to, as there hasn’t been any real talk of poker on Capitol Hill in years. He’s basically there to continue to escort Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and be yet another Senator who is willing to put up with Donald Trump’s raging narcissistic stupidity in order to advance ventures that his party wants.

Though McCain wasn’t up for re-election until 2022, it looks like Kyl won’t be in office for that long, as he has said he will not run for re-election himself. Because of that, there will be a special election for the Senate seat in 2020, according to Arizona law.

Lead photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr


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