The Washington Post

What the end of the NFL lockout can teach us about the debt ceiling

Members of Congress? I can’t tell the difference! (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

As far as I understand it, the NFL players and owners make a lot of money, the kind of money that comes in units like “bucketloads” and “piles.” The owners and players disagreed about a number of issues, including who ought to receive the greatest number of baskets of money, and so they haggled for several months. There were more issues at stake, but I don’t have time to get into them now, and I would probably embarrass myself by referring to someone as a “power forward.” They’d been in agreement about most of the conditions since July 15, but hammering out the details took time and effort. Now they’ve agreed on a settlement that makes everyone happier, ending a four-and-a-half- month lockout.

But before we sigh in relief and go our merry way, this offers some lessons for the debt ceiling debate. After all, members of Congress and NFL players, aside from a few superficial differences (attire, need for helmets, willingness to take one for the team) are functionally identical.

NFL players are fond of sending images of their members to women with whom they are not yet acquainted. This is a hobby they share with certain members of Congress.

Both groups are paid to do things that everyone in an armchair has ideas about how to do better. “This is ridiculous!” people yell at the television, when they watch them in action. “Look alive! Stop having all those committee meetings!”

Winston Churchill described football as rugby with committee meetings. So’s congressional politics.

 “Don’t blame him! Do your job!” we yell. “Stop running! If you’re running all the time you’re not looking where you’re going.”

Of course, there are differences. If the NFL didn’t happen, people would actively be sad. If the debt ceiling doesn’t get raised, we’ll still have something to do on Sundays. Sure, some folks called Moody's will be upset with us, but with a name like that, I would expect nothing less. They’re probably upset with everyone all the time. (A week from now, some blog compiler will no doubt cite that sentence as evidence that I am fundamentally frivolous-minded, but there it is.)

To the untrained eye, football seems like a lot of people running in strange formations and accomplishing little. The same could be said of Congress and President Obama on the subject of the debt.

But perhaps that wouldn’t be fair to the NFL.

There is a 100 percent injury rate in the NFL. You keep playing until you can no longer move your fingers to send ill-advised texts to strange women. You keep playing to put food on your family. You keep playing, because if you don’t play, you won’t get paid, and you will have to get a smaller decorative pool shaped like an expressionistic vision of your kidney.

NFLers are paid serious money to pay a frivolous game. But the game has real ramifications. There are ticket collectors and stadium cleaners and T-shirt sellers and all kinds of Real People who will suffer if the festival of running and punting and tossing doesn’t go as planned.

The debt ceiling is hardly a less frivolous game. The biggest difference is that football’s a better show. And the ones who are playing around can actually get hurt.

The game that’s been surging between the White House and Capitol Hill is a game played with other people’s money. Our government is living beyond its means. So something ought to give. Earn more! Spend less! Do something! But it looks as though they’re going to punt. Fix the underlying problem by raising taxes or cutting entitlement spending? But then you might not be reelected! And that would be a fate worse than debt!

If elderly people yell at you when you are in the NFL, you ignore them and keep going. In the White House, when old people yell at you, you apologize to them, promise not to cut their benefits, and try to blame Congress for whatever it is that is going wrong in their lives at the moment.

Soon we’ll have two opportunities to watch groups of people run around and punt and fail to accomplish very much — one on CBS on Sundays, the other on CSPAN every day. It’s exciting to watch, and it’ll all come down to the last minute.

If only they had some skin in the game.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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