March Madness is getting ready to blow in. Come March 19, basketball will pervade every television, laptop, tablet, cubicle, bar and college rivalry and all weekend plans. And just as soon as it arrives, it fades as, one by one, the teams fall in the single-elimination tournament that consistently produces major upsets and Cinderella stories worthy of a “Hunger Games” novel.
And the madness is even more prevalent on Capitol Hill, as staffers root for their alma maters. The NCAA estimates that March Madness pools reach 35 million Americans, and Capitol offices provide a ready-made environment for this most American form of gambling.
“It wouldn’t be March Madness without a set of brackets hanging on the wall,” said one former staffer who worked for a member from Pennsylvania. “I was lucky to have a boss who took the games seriously, so he never minded when our TVs were on in the back office.”
Many Capitol Hill staffers have personal TVs set up, which are ostensibly tuned to the floor proceedings, the occasional committee hearing or perhaps MSNBC or Fox, depending on party affiliation.
But staffers are lucky come March Madness: The limited cable package includes TBS, TNT and CBS, all of which air March Madness games on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament.
“During the tournament, you can always count on having one [office] TV tuned in to the games with the boss watching, too,” said one former chief of staff who worked for New York members.
According to the “March Madness Productivity Report” created by business consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 8.4 million work hours are spent watching the NCAA tournament games (based on 2011 estimates). This would indicate that some staffers and government employees put down their Congressional Record long enough to catch any number of early buzzer-beaters last year, such as Mizzou’s loss to Norfolk State on Day 2 of the tourney.
In the interest of camaraderie, some Capitol Hill staffers abandon ship entirely and head up the street to watch the games at a nearby watering hole.
“Before the lobbying rules were changed, a lobbyist would send an email, ‘Meet at this place at 3 p.m.,’” said a staffer who works for a Midwestern senator. “It’s not a good time to be a congressional staffer,” she lamented. “We can’t go anywhere or have anyone buy us anything.”
But the local bars boast March Madness specials, even for the financially challenged who pine for the lobbyist rules of yore, and even an intern can find enough scratch to buy a round or two at a place such as the Capitol Lounge or the Tune Inn.
Not everyone gets to join in the fun. Some offices are actively discouraged from joining the fray.
“We never did a pool or turned the games on. That would be considered ‘fun,’ which was strictly forbidden,” said one former staffer for a New England member.
One Senate office went so far as to have an “unofficial” pool. “It’s done in secret because our office handbook prohibits it,” the Senate staffer said in an email.
And even if your member of Congress is asking for your advice on his bracket picks or cheering the game on next to you, it does not mean that House and Senate ethics rules have given the green light.
“In general, federal law prohibits gambling on government property. However, nothing in the House and Senate ethics manuals specifically addresses sports betting pools,” said C. Simon Davidson, an attorney at McGuire Woods who writes an ethics column for CQ Roll Call.
Last year, Kentucky dominated each round, handily winning the title game and earning praise from its congressional delegation.
“In Kentucky, UK basketball is religion. Congressman Hal Rogers is a proud member of the Big Blue Nation,” said Christine Hardman, Rep. Harold Rogers’ spokeswoman. Rogers, a Republican, submitted a statement to the Congressional Record congratulating the Wildcats for their NCAA 2012 championship run.
Kentucky’s starting five from last year’s team have left for the NBA, so this year’s tournament does not have an agreed-upon front-runner yet. Additional upsets are expected and the bracket pools may be fair game for anyone, college basketball devotee or not.
Best of luck to all who play. We’re eyeing Indiana University as the national champs, with strong Cinderella runs by Creighton, Middle Tennessee and Wichita State.