For the past few months, two major impasses in American institutions gripped the nation’s interest: the NFL lockout and labor negotiations, and the Congressional debt limit discussions. These negotiations have run parallel to each other since March, and both faced intense pressure to complete a deal before August. Yet key differences in comprehension of consequences, the costs of delay, and the effects of public opinion explain why Congress is still sidelined as of August 1st, while the NFL has taken the field.
To players and NFLPA representatives alike, failing to close a deal by August had a clear consequence: the loss of preseason games, which would cost owners millions and players a few paychecks. In Congress, many representatives seem not to understand what the debt ceiling is, let alone what would happen should we fail to strike a deal before the August 2nd deadline. Even the Obama administration isn’t sure: his Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, met with Federal Reserve chaiman Ben Bernanke on July 23rd to discuss “the implications for the US economy if Congress fails to act,” mere weeks before the final day. This confusion makes reaching a consensus, and thus a deal, much more difficult for the House of Representatives than the NFLPA.
Sides in both conflicts are also keenly aware of the debate’s effect on public opinion. Congressional representatives are obviously concerned about earning their constituent’s votes, but the NFL is just as worried about their fans voting with their wallets. The public’s ultimate goals have a major effect on the timeline of negotiations. Football fans want the game to return, and don’t particularly care about the deal’s details. This incentivizes compromise, a deal fair to both sides if imperfect on some counts. The debt ceiling is similar: most of the public wants a deal, period, to make the issue disappear. But fringe voters do not want to sacrifice their principles, by raising taxes (the right wing) or destroying entitlement programs (the left). Posturing can earn votes in this environment, which can encourage brinksmanship and eliminate reasons to compromise.
Besides the deadlines, there was little cost to delaying a deal in either case. Free agency and summer practices were suspended in the NFL, but no revenue would be lost until preseason. While this meant there was less pressure to make a deal before that deadline, the costs of the lockout grew gradually for both players and owners, favoring a quick agreement. For Congress, there was no short-term loss in failing to compromise, and some even gained political capital by delaying. While the cost of breaching the deadline is equally high for both Congress and the NFL, the opportunity cost rises faster for the football players, increasing the likelihood of an earlier deal.
While we wait with bated breath to see if Democrats and Republicans can strike a deal today, the National Football League clearly had more incentive to reach an agreement before the last bell. Public opinion, rising incremental costs, and a solid understanding of the issues all helped ensure football returned well before the last hour. These three issues, making sure all parties understand what’s at stake, identifying and emphasizing the daily cost of gamesmanship over collaboration, and using public opinion to your advantage, are important tactics in an impasse. Using them effectively can help shorten the length of the disagreement, a critical goal for all of us.
Photo Credits: Congress picture from Flikr user dionhinchcliffe,
Giants photo my own