Congressional ‘gambling’ is out of control

These friendly wagers have gotten stale and could use some new energy

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exchange gifts as they settle a wager over a NBA basketball championship game between her Golden State Warriors and his victorious Toronto Raptors at the Capitol in June. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exchange gifts as they settle a wager over a NBA basketball championship game between her Golden State Warriors and his victorious Toronto Raptors at the Capitol in June. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 29, 2020 at 6:00am

Politicians have a gambling problem.

Mayors do it. So do governors and even prime ministers. But members of Congress are the worst offenders, and they’re getting out of control.

When it comes to sports, they simply can’t resist making “friendly wagers.” You know the routine by now: Ahead of the Big Game, two politicians whose teams will square off make a banal bet that usually involves some home state products like peanuts, candy or sausage. And the practice only seems to be growing. These bets used to be reserved for the Super Bowl, the World Series or at least playoff matchups, but now even regular season games are drawing action from members of Congress.

Not all bets are boring. Some (the best) involve genuine humiliation.

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After his Los Angeles Dodgers lost to the New York Mets in a 2015 National League Division Series, Adam Schiff took to the House floor to pay his debt to fellow congressman Steve Israel. Schiff, with the Mets logo attached to his necktie, gazed at the microphone, preemptively displaying the deep sense of regret he knew he’d be feeling shortly, and let out a sigh. “Now Steve, this song is for you,” Schiff said, before rushing through the saddest rendition of “Meet the Mets” ever heard. It went on less than a minute, but it’s hard to imagine Schiff lasting one second longer. “Mr. Speaker, please tell me my time has expired,” he said when he was done.

Most of these wagers are opportunities for lawmakers to show their regular guy or gal bonafides, promote their home states and districts, and provide some easy “fun” content for their social media accounts. They are little more than thinly veiled PR for whatever home state or district product the member wants to foist onto the public consciousness. Is Coca-Cola in your district? Then bet a caseload. Is it the home of Utz potato chips? Bet a pack.

Oh, and try not to be inauthentic. “In states where they have more than one team in the league, pick a side,” says one former senior congressional staffer. “If you’re a Yankees fan, you better not be betting for the Mets to win.”

Consider this an open letter: Unless you are willing to make an actual bet with actual stakes, please stop doing these.

Crab, Napa Valley wine and sourdough bread were on tap as California’s senators settled a Super Bowl bet with the Maryland delegation in 2013. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Crab, Napa Valley wine and sourdough bread were on tap as California’s senators settled a Super Bowl bet with the Maryland delegation in 2013. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

I admit there’s nothing inherently wrong with these bets, but they’re starting to become so commonplace that it’s hard to find any of them interesting. Rarely is anything of consequence on the line.

“It’s harmless and seems like it’s been going on forever,” said one former Capitol Hill staffer. “It’s better when there’s something really at stake.”

So how about putting more skin in the game?

At the very least, the boring food swaps have got to end. Members of Congress could learn a thing or two from mayors and governors, who appear to have tired of exchanging food products. (Yes, we all know Philadelphia is known for its cheesesteaks.)

Sometimes bets can be a pretext for charitable work. For instance, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to assemble care packages for recently returned members of the armed services from Pittsburgh after his New York Jets lost to the Steelers in the 2011 AFC title game. (That’s not to say he always shunned the food route: He collected 42 pounds of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, 100 cups of clam chowder and lots and lots of ice cream from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino three years earlier when the Patriots lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl — all in the name of charity.)

If you’re hellbent on food swaps, there’s a way to boost your home state products while also making things interesting. By all means, bet your barbecue and chocolate, but at least up the quantity. For instance, if you’re from Kansas and your team wins the Super Bowl, how about asking a Californian to polish off 3 pounds of baby back ribs? I think we’d all want to see that.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 13: From left, Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, make symbols that spell
Ohio State beat the University of Oregon in 2015, and this happened. From left, Sens. Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden and Rob Portman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. John Kennedy missed a prime opportunity for this when the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team lost to Kennedy’s Louisiana State University Tigers in November. The annual matchup is one of the biggest on each team’s schedule every year, and usually determines who will go on to play for a national title. Even President Trump showed for the game last season. So what do senators Kennedy and Richard Shelby of Alabama place on the line?

Sausage and chicken.

“I am betting as much extra-spicy Popeyes fried chicken as the senator can eat,” Kennedy said. “Popeyes chicken is among the best fried chicken God ever put breath in.” Shelby bet a double serving of Conecuh Sausage made in Evergreen, Alabama.

Instead of letting Shelby choose, Kennedy should have demanded he put down an entire 20-piece spicy. That way everybody wins.