4 Things Congress Could Learn From NHL Hockey

Among them, teamwork and punishment for bad behavior.

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It’s April, so I naturally have two matters competing for attention in my brain: the budget impasse, and hockey. And as I frantically calculate the scenarios under which my favorite Buffalo Sabres will make it into the playoffs, the thought occurs to me that Congress might do better if it adopted some of the rules and tenets of hockey.

Sure, I know what you’re thinking--that hockey players just use a beautiful and exciting sport as an excuse to fight. First, that’s not really true, and secondly, is that so much different from how Congress behaves?

Here’s what might be useful:

Teamwork. There are, of course, some individual players in hockey who are very, very good and are certainly responsible for much of a team’s success. But it’s still a team effort, and no game is won without that cohesiveness and cooperation. What does this mean for Congress? Even if you’re a hot Tea Party member, you don’t get your way all the time. You are one wing of a party that controls one half of one-third of the federal government. You may be fashionable, but you don’t run the whole show. You might not get the $60 billion in cuts you want, but you’ll get credit for the assist if it comes in at $33 billion. [See a roundup of political cartoons about the Tea Party.]

Punishment for bad behavior. Hockey’s a tough and physical game, but there are limits. Ice the puck, and the whistle is called. Conduct a more serious infraction and you’ll be down a man for two, maybe even four minutes. Not only does this deprive a team of strength, but it’s appropriately humiliating for the offending player, who has to sit in short pants all by himself and be punished by being confined in a box. It’s like being grounded, complete with the ref blowing his whistle and pointing at the violator. I imagine him saying something like, "two minutes, mister! And you just think about what you did!" It worked in junior high; it works in the hockey arena. Perhaps congressmen would be more likely to play nice if they had to worry about sitting out a vote or a legislative negotiating session.

Oh--and when a player is very, very bad, he gets suspended for a number of games. He is not paid for those games. Some senators have floated the idea of denying salaries during a possible government shutdown There are, it seems, some legitimate questions about the legality of such an idea, and it is arguably something of a cheap publicity stunt. But that doesn’t prevent lawmakers, if they are really serious about the idea, from returning their salaries to the federal government for the duration of any shutdown. [See 10 effects of a government shutdown.]

No Trash Talk. The amazing thing about hockey players is, despite how aggressive and even nasty they can be on the ice, they don’t diss each other or the other team. They could be up by three points at the end of the first period, and they’ll still tell the sports reporters that the other team is playing well and keeping them skating hard. And at the end of every series in the playoffs, they do that ritual from Little League, lining up and passing each other with the greeting "good game." Some of the players who know each other actually slap each other on the back. They would not go on Meet the Press and accuse the other team of wanting seniors to die homeless and penniless, or of wanting to spend money just for the sake of spending it. Competition is healthy, but play nice, at least some of the time.

The Shoot-Out. I have a love-hate relationship with the shoot-out, since it is excruciating. It used to be, in hockey, that a tie was a tie. Now, teams go into five minutes of overtime, and if that doesn’t resolve things, they compete in this nail-bitingly tense, Lord-of-the-Flies-competition whereby each team gets three unencumbered chances to race down the ice with the puck and slam it into the opponent’s net. This is not a fun time to be a goaltender. It may be why some hockey players (not to mention the fans at home and in the arena) drink. But it ends an impasse. I’m not sure yet how a shoot-out would work in Congress--should Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Kent Conrad throw big budget books at Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker John Boehner? And I’m a little worried that something called a "shoot-out" might get out of hand. All the more reason for lawmakers to make compromises and get a deal. The fans--rather, the voters--will demand it.

  • See a roundup of political cartoons about the budget and debt..
  • See 10 effects of a government shutdown.
  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.