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Press Release

In “Bizarro” Congress Barney Frank is Helping Keep the Internet Free

If you are a fan of the Superman comic book series, or if you were a regular Seinfeld watcher, you would be familiar with the backwards “bizarro” world where down is up, day is night, you say goodbye when you mean hello and so on.  In other words, expect the opposite of what you would normally expect.

Well when it comes to keeping the internet free from excessive government regulation, it would seem there’s a bit of a bizarro streak running through Congress right now.  That is because efforts to repeal unnecessary government regulation and oversight that limit innovation and growth on the internet are being led by, of all lawmakers, Representative Barney Frank (D, MA-4); outspoken liberal and regular ally to big government causes one would normally associate nanny-state internet regulation with.  Nevertheless, Frank has been leading the charge on Capitol Hill against the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), first offering legislation to repeal it last year and just this week reintroducing the bill in the 111th Congress.

UIGEA was pushed through by the Bush Administration (which free-market limited government conservatives came to expect bizarre-like action from) in its final days with the stated purpose to stop unlawful online gambling.  However, because the act never actually spelled out what that meant, UIGEA in broad terms put the government in the role of “Big Brother” on the internet.  In particular, the act has had the effect of turning online payment transaction companies into informants and enforcers for the federal government, raising privacy concerns as well as significant costs to consumers.

True, Frank’s real reason for his new found deregulatory stance on online gaming is filling government coffers.  UIGEA’s heavy government hand has forced consumers to foreign companies with offshore websites which Frank and others on the Left have argued leaves the U.S. taxman out in the cold.  Of course it also hurts U.S. based businesses that otherwise could compete in a more open marketplace.

But motives aside, deregulatory policy is deregulatory policy.  Traditional allies to the limited government conservative movement should be mindful of this and resist the bizarro knee-jerk against UIGEA repeal simply because Barney Frank is championing it.

Unfortunately, many on the Right have allowed social arguments concerning the “evils of gambling” to cloud their judgment and force them from their free-market moorings.  In this sense, turning online gambling into the bad guy may indeed cater to certain constituencies.  It does not however excuse the larger consequences of restricting the free and open internet for conservatives who claim to support free markets.  

This includes prominent Republicans like Senate Minority Whip John Kyl (R-AZ) who are trying to help reshape the party and return it to its rightful limited government roots.  Kyl is usually a reliable champion on core limited government issues, but has missed the mark on UIGEA as he was one of the act’s original proponents and remains a staunch advocate in the face of repeal efforts in this Congress.  Other Republicans have followed suit with much hand-wringing over gambling in general and protecting people from themselves, again ignoring the big government elephant in the corner.

If the political calculus is that meaningless overtures to social conservatives at the expense of core limited government principle is a winning strategy, conservatives need to remember 2006.  After demagoguery-fueled battles that stroked the party’s social wing at the expense of those who wanted to see smaller, more restrained government, most notably the Terri Schiavo sham and the gay marriage Constitutional Amendment side-show,  a disenfranchised conservative base stayed home on Election Day and Democrats seized control of Congress.  Limited government voters were rightly upset that Bush and Delay were driving the out-of-control spending train off the proverbial cliff while Democrats in many respects seized the mantle of fiscal responsibility and successfully convinced the American people they were the better stewards of their hard-earned tax dollars.

This is not to overstate the importance of UIGEA repeal and certainly not to suggest it as the means by which Republicans could find their way back into the majority.  Rather it should suffice to say that this is a good, albeit small step and conservatives would greatly help their cause if they would recognize good policy when they see it and no matter who supports it.  Even if in today’s bizarro world in Congress that means standing with Barney Frank, Republicans who espouse to be on the side of the free market, limited government movement should do it on UIGEA repeal.

If they do it will help us wave goodbye to burdensome internet regulation (or perhaps I should have said “hello”).