Bill Bennett Should Join Rep. Wolf’s Anti-Gambling Fight

Posted May 7, 2003 at 3:24pm

After former Education Secretary Bill Bennett comes to terms with his own gambling problem, he should join his fellow moralist, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), in trying to reverse the spread of legalized gambling in the nation.

Wolf is a moralist in the best sense of the word. He doesn’t just write and talk about morality — or scold, as has been Bennett’s tendency. [IMGCAP(1)]

Wolf works for what’s right — traveling to Ethiopia recently to bring attention to a raging new famine, sponsoring legislation to halt prison rape, trying to persuade the Bush administration to protest human rights abuses in China. He has traveled the world on human rights inspection missions.

For nearly a decade, Wolf has been Congress’ leading anti-gambling crusader. It’s been an uphill struggle, as state after state became “addicted,” as he puts it, to revenue raised by lotteries and casino gambling.

In an interview, he refused to comment on Bennett’s newly disclosed gambling problem. “I don’t comment on people, even my opponent in an election,” he said. “I like to talk about the issues.”

Bennett, author of numerous books on moral topics — “The Book of Virtues” on the inspirational side, “The Death of Outrage” on the critical — was exposed this week by Newsweek and the Washington Monthly as a problem gambler.

As the two publications reported, he may have lost $8 million over several years, sometimes $500,000 in a single visit to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, mainly playing slot machines or video poker.

Bennett disputed the total size of his losses. At first, he defended his gambling in terms he would never apply to other flaws — such as adultery, cohabitation and divorce in his 2001 book, “The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family.”

He said he didn’t see his behavior as a moral issue and that he was not breaking the law or endangering his family’s finances by “betting the milk money.”

But after a day in the headlines, he issued a terse statement repeating the fact that he’d broken no laws but acknowledging, “I’ve gambled too much. My gambling days are over.”

Assuming he means it, that’s a good beginning. But Bennett could do worse than to get together with his friend, Wolf, and then sign up to join the anti-gambling movement.

Various studies indicate that there are somewhere between 1.5 million and 5 million “problem” or “pathological” gamblers in the country.

Many do bet the milk money and throw themselves and their families into bankruptcy, losing their jobs and marriages. One study estimated that 10 percent of chronic gamblers attempt suicide at some point.

Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, the casino lobby, draws a distinction between “destination gambling,” which he represents and says “is capital intensive and provides good jobs,” and “convenience gambling,” like lotteries, that don’t.

Indeed, I know personally that my old hometown, Joliet, Ill., has been transformed by riverboat gambling revenue from a near-dead shell into a vibrant community with good schools, low taxes and a rich cultural life.

In general, though, Wolf says that gambling is a scourge. “Look at Atlantic City,” he says. “It was in decay. They sold gambling there as a way to bring it back to life. Have you been there? Two blocks off the boardwalk, it’s still decay.

“Economically, most good companies don’t locate where there’s gambling. You don’t find high-tech companies going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

“Wherever gambling goes, you find increasing crime — either because somebody’s embezzling or committing robberies to pay debts,” he said.

His foremost objection is that “gambling preys on the poor. It exploits them. It produces no tangible good for the nation. If you spend $500 gambling, it’s $500 you didn’t spend on clothes for your children or fixing your car. It hurts the clothing store and the auto mechanic.”

This winter, Wolf aroused the ire of Republicans in Maryland by testifying against his friend, Gov. Bob Ehrlich, and his plan to introduce slot machines at race tracks to help close the state’s budget deficit.

He did so, he said, “because if there are slots in Maryland, there will be great pressure to bring gambling to Virginia.” The Maryland Legislature rejected slots, but Wolf said, “the fight is far from over.”

Maryland represents one victory for Wolf’s side. Massachusetts also rejected slots this year, and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has rejected calls for new casino licenses.

But over the past 30 years, legalized gambling has boomed — and, with it, the political power of pro-gambling interests.

In the 1970s, casino gambling existed only in Nevada and Atlantic City, and seven states had lotteries. Now casinos exist in 28 states, including Indian reservations in 23 states, and 38 states and D.C. have lotteries.

From 1982 to 2001, the amount bet in casinos has jumped from $101 billion to $755 billion and lottery betting has grown from $4 billion to $58 billion. Internet gambling, a growing menace, may account for $2 billion.

Politically, total contributions from gambling interests to federal candidates have grown from $1.5 million in 1992 to $14 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“When I first came to Congress in 1980,” Wolf said, “nobody wanted to be associated with gambling. Now, there’s a gambling caucus.”

He admits, “There is no anti-gambling caucus.” Last year, when he proposed an amendment to study the effects of Indian gambling on nearby communities, it lost 273-151.

A bill by former Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the former University of Oklahoma football coach, to forbid betting on college sports, which Wolf is sponsoring, has yet to make it out of committee.

“I wouldn’t say we’re losing. I wouldn’t say we’re winning,” Wolf told me. “We’ll win in the end.” But he needs the kind of forceful help that Bennett could provide. And it would help Bennett, too.