As Congress continues to grapple with the fiscal constraints of the deficit, some members are looking at an ancient form of revenue-raising: wagering.
At least three House members have submitted bills to create a national lottery to raise money to reduce the deficit or maintain social-service programs for the elderly and disabled. A fourth, Rep. Thomas A. Luken (D-Ohio), has authored legislation to set up a commission to study establishment of a lottery.
The proposals have drawn fire from an unusual alliance of religious groups opposed to gambling, and the association of state lottery boards, which fears the states would lose revenue if they had to compete with a national game.
Last year, Americans spent more than $8 billion on state lotteries, netting more than $3 billion for state treasuries. Proponents of a national game say it could raise $10 billion to $30 billion annually.
Lotteries exist in almost every country, according to Jean-Marc Lafaille, secretary general of the International Association of Government Lotteries in Montreal. He said national lotteries are usually associated with countries that have centralized governments, such as France and Spain. Countries organized along the lines of the federal system, such as Germany, Australia and Switzerland, tend to have regional or provincial lotteries.
In Canada, for instance, where the provinces operate lotteries, about $35 million of their revenues were turned over to the national government last year.
Martin M. Puncke, director of the Maryland lottery and president of the North American Association of State Lotteries, says states with lotteries "are against a national one because it is a state revenue source. And for states without lotteries, the issue becomes whether the federal government should impose one on them."
In addition to Maryland and the District, 18 states have lotteries. Lotteries are scheduled to begin later this year in Missouri and West Virginia.
Opponents of a federal lottery say it would not significantly reduce the national debt. According to a Congressional Research Service study, if 50 percent of a national lottery's revenues were turned over to the Treasury, every American over 16 would have to spend $2,041 on the game to eliminate a $185 billion deficit.
H. Roy Kaplan, a sociologist at the Florida Institute of Technology who has studied gambling, said a national lottery would have little impact on the deficit.
Kaplan, who is not opposed to a lottery, said some members of Congress have exaggerated how much a national game could raise. Several religious groups have gone further, suggesting that a national lottery would have no positive impact.
Larry Braidfoot, general counsel of the Christian Life Commission, a Baptist organization headquartered in Nashville, said all lotteries are a regressive tax on the poor.
"They stimulate illegal gambling," Braidfoot said, "and they have a disproportionate appeal to ethnic minorities, and they add to the general problem of compulsive gambling."
A Gallup Poll taken last year, however, shows that a majority of Americans favor a national lottery. The poll, commissioned by the trade magazine Gaming and Wagering Business, found that about 62 percent of those surveyed in a nationwide random sampling support a national game, while about 26 percent oppose it and 12 percent have no opinion.
The idea of using a national lottery to raise revenue is not new. In 1776, the Continental Congress approved a lottery to raise $10 million to support the colonial troops in the Revolutionary War. The lottery was eventually abandoned, according to John Scarne's "Complete Guide to Gambling," because most of the colonists could not afford the minimum $10 ticket and the "wealthier ones who were Tories had no desire to aid the rebellion."
At least three Ivy League institutions -- Harvard, Dartmouth and Columbia -- were funded in part by lotteries, and lotteries were used in colonial times to finance public improvements.
An 1820 law authorized the District to hire a private group to run a "Grand National Lottery" that sold thousands of tickets. After announcing the winners, the contest's promoters apparently disappeared with the money, prompting the winner to successfully sue the city for $100,000.
Federal laws in the 1950s banned most lotteries, but in 1975, Congress approved an exemption for state-run contests.
Under two of the legislative proposals, sponsored by Reps. Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.) and Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), a commission would be created to set up and administer a national lottery.
Collins' bill would create a new Treasury bond that would pay out at an interest rate one percentage point lower than the rate for EE bonds, in order to "encourage savings," according to an aide. On New Year's Day, one of the face numbers of the bonds would be picked in a lottery, with at least 40 percent of the proceeds of the bond sales disributed as prizes, and no more than 10 percent used for administrative expenses. The proceeds would help finance Medicare, child welfare and education programs.
Under Addabbo's proposal, lottery revenues would go into the Medicare and Social Security trust funds. Addabbo would split the revenues in the same way Collins proposes.
Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) has proposed a monthly lottery, with tickets costing $1 each. He predicts it could raise $12 billion a year.
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.), is to be introduced soon, according to press aide Cheryl K. Genevie. Murphy sponsored the legislation that created the Pennsylvania state lottery in 1971.