April 27, 2005

The NFL's Salary Cap, Baseball and Politics
By Stuart Comstock-Gay

I love politics. And like baseball, the early stages of the campaigns are often the most exciting, when anything is possible -- when unknown candidates are still contenders.

Unfortunately, both baseball and politics suffer from the distortion of big money. In neither case is there a level and reasonably equal playing field. In both cases, money pre-determines the outcome. Both could learn a lot from the National Football League.

What's wrong with Kansas City Royals baseball? Nothing that $100 million or so wouldn't fix. Who has a better shot at winning the World Series this year? The New York Yankees with their $204 million payroll or the Royals at $39.5 million?

In the 10 seasons from 1995 to 2004, there were 394 playoff games played in Major League Baseball. In that decade, the 10 teams with the highest payrolls won 334 of 394 of the playoff games, for a stunning 85-percent winning rate. The 10 lowest payroll teams won 12 of those 394 games -- for a winning percentage of 3 percent. In 2004, teams in the high-paying bracket went 27-7 in the playoffs. The bottom 10 teams? None qualified. In fact, not one of the bottom 10 has played in any World Series game in the past decade.

During baseball's off-season, the hot-stove discussions are only partly about the merit of players. They are also about salaries -- and who can afford the best players.

As distorted as the numbers are for baseball, they're worse for Congress. In the 2004 elections, in more than 97 percent of House races and 88 percent of Senate races, the candidate who spent the most money won, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 10 of 435 House races in 2004 did the winner spend less than the loser. And in only five of those races did the winner spend less than 80 percent of the amount spent by the loser. Spending ratios of 9:1 and 10:1 are not uncommon.

During the political pre-campaign season, discussions are only partly about who would be the best candidate. The real question is, "Who can raise the most money?" Try running for your local congressional seat if you don't have some serious money behind you. Like the Kansas City Royals, you may look good in spring training, but don't expect to have a serious run unless you can show the money.

What if U.S. politics instead followed pro football's financial model? In the NFL, money is shared and salaries are capped. No team can spend more on salaries than a pre-determined amount -- $80.6 million in 2004. As a result, no team is consigned to losing because they lack money. Sure, there are winners and losers. Over the past four years, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls, but not because they are wealthy. They won because they are well-coached, well-managed, and play well together. Even teams from the least wealthy cities -- like Green Bay -- can consistently compete for the title. In the NFL, when a team does poorly year after year, nobody points to a lack of money. My personal disappointment about the failure of the Cleveland Browns isn't about their lack of cash, it's about their lack of merit.

What if candidates were judged not by whether they can put together a bigger campaign war chest, run more TV ads, and send more mailings than their opponents, but on whether their ideas, values and leadership were judged superior?

Like the NFL, U.S. politics would be well-served by spending limits. We should determine a level of funding that is adequate for an effective campaign, and say "no more." It wouldn't ensure that every Tom, Dick or Sally who wants to run would get equal money. But it could ensure that money alone wouldn't determine elections -- and that candidates who can put together a strong message and are able to raise a reasonable amount of money can run a meaningful campaign.

There's a possibility this could happen. Vermont tried to do just this with a law its lawmakers passed in 1997. While some argued that campaign spending limits are unconstitutional, the Vermont legislature disagreed, in the belief that the obsessive pursuit of campaign money was distorting Vermont politics. The U.S. Supreme Court will get a chance to look at it later this year. For the sake of our public life, we can hope the court decides that limits are a reasonable restriction on U.S. campaigns.

I love baseball. And I really love politics. I wish they would both learn something from the NFL.


Copyright © 2005 U.P.I.