What Debt Ceiling Negotiators Can Learn From the NFL

Elitist football team owners have shown a kind of flexibility badly needed in Washington.

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There are times when the owners of the National Football League's 32 teams seem like the exclusive members of a billionaire-crybaby club: Their players are too demanding. The networks that televise their games are too controlling. The fans expect all kinds of unreasonable amenities.

But at the moment, the NFL owners seem like a class of enlightened nobility. That's partly because they managed to end a 136-day work stoppage with remarkably little rancor and no harm to fans. But it's also because of the clowns who are crowding them off the national stage with far worse behavior: the Washington politicians creating a national debt crisis out of arrogance and animosity.

[See who will suffer if there's no debt deal.]

It's getting tiresome to recount the folly in the nation's capital, but here's the obligatory recap: The U.S. government must borrow money to finance about 40 percent of all its spending. There's a legislative concoction called the debt ceiling that Congress must raise every year or two, for Washington to borrow more. The government has now hit its borrowing limit, which means Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling pronto—as it has done dozens of times in the past—or else the government will be forced to slash spending by levels that would almost certainly trigger a recession. Everybody in Washington knows this, yet Republicans who now control the House of Representatives are refusing to raise the borrowing limit unless President Obama and his fellow Democrats agree to major spending cuts that are needed to bring down the mushrooming national debt.

[Check out political cartoons about the deficit and debt.]

The Republicans are right about the need to shrink the debt and curtail government spending. But they also refuse to consider any kind of tax increase as part of a solution—even though most budget experts say fixing the debt must include spending cuts and tax hikes both. The ugly standoff, meanwhile, makes the world's leading democracy look dysfunctional and foolish. And the lack of action amidst all the posturing means there's an even chance that the nation's AAA credit rating will be downgraded soon, for the first time ever.

[See how a debt downgrade would harm America.]

Ordinarily, the NFL owners are nobody's example of competence or probity. But they look like masters of the universe compared with the fumbling politicians in Washington, and especially compared with the holdout House Republicans who are risking a recession that could harm millions, in fealty to a dogmatic aversion to taxes or government. Here are a few things the GOP could learn from the NFL:

Protect your franchise. There was a lot to lose in the NFL negotiations, just as there is in the debt battle. The NFL is the world's most profitable sports league, with each team averaging about $100 million in annual earnings, by one estimate. That's roughly $3 billion per year in profit for the league as a whole. Had the strike drifted into the preseason and then the regular season, the owners would have begun to lose about $200 million per week. They could have held out—infuriating fans—and possibly earned back those losses through tougher negotiations with the players. But the owners decided to take the money today and avoid a war of attrition that could have made everybody worse off.

Unfortunately, in Washington, there's no personal financial cost to blocking a deal on the debt ceiling. GOP zealots have no "skin in the game," as they would if they were business owners whose revenue would suffer because of their refusal to make a deal. But they're frittering away a valuable franchise all the same, as voters reach new levels of disgust with their elected officials. Republicans are obviously gambling that their self-important rectitude will pay off in the 2012 elections—even if they wreck the economy now. They ought to be careful. Democrats thought the same thing when passing stimulus plans, healthcare reform and financial reform in 2009 and 2010. Voters punished them.

[See who to blame for the debt fiasco.]

Give a little. It's one of the oldest adages in business: A good compromise leaves both sides feeling somewhat dissatisfied. The NFL owners gave up several things they had sought in order to make a deal with the players. They wanted to extend the season to 18 games to boost revenue even more, which didn't happen. They'll pay more than they wanted to compensate injured players and fund player retirement plans. "Neither side got everything they wanted," said New York Giants co-owner John Mara. "What we did achieve is a fair deal."

Congressional Republicans, by contrast, seem to regard a fair deal on the debt as one that includes everything they want and nothing they don't. President Obama has flubbed the debt negotiations by failing to address the problem earlier, when he had more leverage. But he's winning the P.R. battle because he's agreed to things that he initially opposed, such as cutbacks in Medicare and Social Security, which many other Democrats are inflexible about. Congressional Republicans, however, remain adamant on taxes, with more than 270 of them having signed a pledge never to raise taxes. If politics is the art of compromise, then maybe these doctrinaire tax haters are in the wrong line of work.

Think long-term. The NFL's new agreement will be in effect until 2021. That means fans can enjoy football for the next decade without worrying about periodic disruptions by cantankerous owners who seem to enjoy conflict. If only the same were true of Washington. Alas, it looks as if there will be ongoing smackdowns over government spending and reducing the debt for the foreseeable future. If there's a deal to raise the borrowing limit, it may not even last until the 2012 elections, forcing an ugly round of negotiations at a time when politicians are at their unctuous worst. There will probably be another big battle in 2013, after the elections, when negotiators start to wrangle over tax reform. That alone could take years. This is why there's no such thing as "fans" of politics. At best, we tolerate it. Many simply tune it out, no matter how big the stakes.

[See how elites could profit from a debt crisis.]

Consider the little people. NFL owners are hardly egalitarian champions of Joe Six-Pack. But at least they understand who provides their revenue. Whether through ticket sales, merchandise fees, or lucrative contracts for beer ads, NFL revenue comes from the people who root for their teams. Rank-and-file sports fans have certainly gotten the shaft before, like during the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, which canceled the World Series that year. The current player lockout in the National Basketball Association threatens to cancel games once the season is scheduled to start in November. But the NFL will provide uninterrupted entertainment for its fans for the next 10 years, with nobody feeling deprived for missing four months' worth of off-season activities while owners and players negotiated the latest deal.

Politicians are dependent upon the proletariat, too, and they routinely spout their dedication to voters and "the American people." But wrecking the economy is a strange way to show their appreciation. Republicans are right that the national debt is a growing problem that could suffocate the economy in a few years if not dealt with soon. But it's not necessary to destroy the economy today in order to save it tomorrow. Virtually all budget experts agree that a series of gradually deeper spending cuts and tax hikes would do the trick, as long as there's resolve in Washington to stick with the program. Meanwhile, there are still 14 million unemployed Americans and many others who are just scraping by, and they will be harmed—not helped—if the Republicans fixation on taxes makes a debt compromise impossible. If this were a football game, boos would fill the air and beer would be drenching the field.

Twitter: @rickjnewman

  • See political cartoons about the economy.
  • Check out editorial cartoons about the budget and the deficit.
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