WASHINGTON -- Concerned about the explosion of gambling nationwide, Congress yesterday began exploring the need for federal oversight of an industry that is now under the strict control of the states.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, urged the House Judiciary Committee to create a national commission to study gambling and the problems that often accompany it, such as compulsive gambling and increased white-collar crime.
"It does not tax gambling. It does not regulate gambling," Mr. Wolf said of his proposal. "It merely recognizes that gambling is spreading throughout the country like wildfire and it needs a hard look."
Maryland is one of several states considering allowing casino gambling. A task force chaired by former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings is studying the pros and cons and is scheduled to make recommendations to the governor and legislature by Dec. 1.
Nationwide, 48 states have some form of legalized gambling and 24 have casinos, either state-sanctioned or sponsored by Indian tribes.
Representatives of the casino industry came out strongly against Mr. Wolf's proposed legislation yesterday, saying that a national study commission would be the first step in an effort to abolish all gambling.
"While [a commission] sounds good at first blush, a close examination of the real intent of the proponents, as manifested in their own rhetoric, shows that their intent is the complete abolition, on moral grounds, of the gaming-entertainment industry," said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Association.
Some Republican lawmakers said the bill conflicts with the effort of the GOP-controlled Congress to transfer more authority to the states.
"We do not need a massive new federal bureaucracy to regulate the gaming industry," said Sen. Richard H. Bryan, a Nevada Democrat.
Yesterday's hearing featured a former Chicago bookmaker who said his well-heeled clientele included police chiefs, sheriffs and other public figures.
William Jahoda, 53, said legalized gambling in Illinois also helped his illegal business by increasing overall interest in betting.
"The political dupes or stooges who approved riverboat gambling houses, lotteries, off-track horse betting sites, Las Vegas nights, etc., became our unwitting -- and at least to my knowledge -- unpaid pimps and front men," Mr. Jahoda said.
Mr. Jahoda, who has testified for the government in several criminal trials since leaving the mob in 1989, approached the committee about testifying, according to panel Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican.
Lawmakers from the major gambling states of Nevada and New Jersey complained about the committee allowing a former mobster to testify.
"We now have a three-ring circus," said Rep. Barbara Vucanovitch, a Nevada Republican. "What does this have to do with the impact of legalized gambling?"