Exceptional Exemption

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More than once in the last few months I’ve heard someone ask, “What business does Congress have investigating steroid and HGH use in Major League Baseball?” And while I agree that it’s stupid, and a waste of time (and possibly wrong), there is precedent.

Not everyone knows that Major League Baseball has a special exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act, the 1890 law that governs how inter-state businesses may conduct themselves without being prosecuted as monopolies. MLB is a monopoly. They have wielded that power explicitly in the past, most famously to prevent players from separating themselves from teams and to prevent teams from moving to different cities.

There’s no actual law on the books that says, “Major League Baseball is exempt from antitrust regulations,” but there’s the next best thing: eighty years of court precedent. In 1922, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion on Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore vs. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, saying that the “interstate commerce clause” didn’t technically govern interstate travel to play away games. The exemption was upheld in 1953 (Toolson v. New York Yankees), when the Supreme Court said that “Congress had no intention of including the business of baseball within the scope of the federal antitrust laws.”

So Major League Baseball lives in a special legal pocket. Is that the only thing getting Congress’ attention?

Not quite. Almost all MLB teams and stadiums reap the rewards of sweetheart deals with local politicians. The New York Yankees have been deducting five million dollars a year from their taxes since 2001. Tampa Bay’s no longer getting a sixty million dollar sales tax refund on their new stadium, but they’re still hoping the state of Florida will sell them the new land at a discount. Breaks like these always come in the name of “creating jobs” (out of what? fairy dust and wishes?) or “revitalizing” a particular neighborhood.

All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill famously observed, and he was Speaker of the House. A member of Congress answers to their constituents. They answer to the local party machine: the neighborhood wards that run their campaign ads and put up their posters. So the state of Arizona’s investment in the Diamondbacks gives John McCain an interest, justified or not, in how MLB conducts its affairs.

Finally, recall that the President becomes the de facto pace-setter of the party he represents. Recall also that the Republicans controlled Congress for years, even if they’re no longer the majority, so they have most of the plum committee seats. And above all else, recall that the current President is the former owner of the Texas Rangers. If that doesn’t tell you enough about Congress’s interest in baseball, then go back to reading the funny pages.