Government and Baseball

Have you heard the one about attending a boxing match and a hockey game breaking out? Good jokes always contain elements of truth to them. But it’s when our expectations run afoul of reality that things really get interesting.

I thought about that recently, when I attended a game between the Washington Nationals and the New York Mets. The game was outstanding; the company engagingly pleasant; the evening wonderfully balmy—a delightful night at the ballpark all around.

But outside of the actual baseball game, it was a rather bizarre experience. I seriously doubt games looked like this at the Nationals’ former home in Montreal, when they were still the Expos.

There were, of course, the Nats’ official mascots—Presidents George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and William Taft—racing around the outfield. “Only in Washington,” I thought. But that was just the beginning.

Before the first pitch, a U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee sang the national anthem backed by the official Baltimore Washington International Airport honor guard. Seriously, I didn’t know airports had honor guards.

The TSA Commissioner then called “play ball.” Advertisements for federal contractors SAIC and Northrop Grumman adorned the digital marquee separating the lower and upper levels. The large center field Jumbotron was sponsored by the National Association of Federal Credit Unions and the Air Traffic Controllers Association. At one point, it was announced that this was the Securities and Exchange Commission employees’ night.

Adding to this “public” display was the stadium itself, paid for by D.C. taxpayers—to the tune of around $640 million, with $83 million in federal funds thrown in to upgrade nearby Metro stations and bridges—and built on land acquired through eminent domain.

What’s going on here?

In 2010 the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported that federal agencies spent at least $945 million on contracts for advertising services (which apparently does not include public communications expenditures in the agencies reviewed). The report also found that agencies are increasingly active in using social media to communicate their activities and programs. Remember all those road signs touting “stimulus” projects and You paid for them.

But there’s much more. The government hosts 1,504 federal domains that carry thousands of websites on them. And a 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that 23 of 24 federal agencies surveyed had a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and all 15 Cabinet agencies had at least one Twitter account. Last Friday, the CIA tweeted for the first time (and listed the FBI, DHS, NSA, DARPA, and DOD among the organizations it “follows.”

Amtrak spends $17 million annually on advertising—and still can’t make money in its café cars. And the amount federal agencies spent over the past year to promote Obamacare? No definitive number exists yet, but I bet it would make Don Draper blush.

According to CRS, over the past century, Congress has enacted three statutory restrictions on agency communications with the public—to limit hiring of publicity experts, to prohibit lobbying Congress, and to ban spending on “publicity or propaganda.”

Did the agencies get the memo?

Congress has criticized government spending on advertising on two recent occasions. The first was in August 2010, when Republicans in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee faulted seven agencies for promoting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The other was in March 2011, when the General Services Administration (GSA) was questioned on hiring a private consulting firm to rebut criticisms that environmental contamination at one of its facilities had sickened and killed some GSA employees.

So those expensive major league ballpark ads are just fine?

I realize not every entity advertised at Nationals Park was a federal agency. But those who weren’t survive off the public dole. Who would have thought that going to a baseball game was a lesson in the cronyist interplay of “government business”?

During the ninth inning, with the game essentially over, a Mets fan jumped the fence and ran the bases.  He crossed home plate, swung an imaginary bat, and then walked with outstretched hands towards the waiting security guard. The guard surprised the errant runner (and the thousands in the stands) by body-slamming him to the ground in an over-the-top display of force unbefitting the crime.

And thus my evening was made complete, my punch line delivered.

I went to a baseball game and government broke out.