A One-Page Provision About Minor League Baseball Shows How Broken Congress' Legislative Process Is

Congress kneecapped minor league ballplayers' lawsuit with last week's omnibus bill. Even if that was the right thing to do, the way it was done is wrong.


Mike McKinney/Icon SMI 364/Mike McKinney/Icon SMI/Newscom

An excellent example of the screwy process that led to the omnibus budget bill that passed last week—and of the ways special interests can manipulate that process—is the inclusion of a provision that exempts minor league baseball players from federal minimum wage laws and laws regarding overtime pay.

The provision has little, if anything, to do with the federal budget. But it is by no means insignificant. Major League Baseball successfully lobbied for its inclusion in the omnibus bill as a way to codify a longstanding de facto exemption and to undermine a lawsuit being brought by several players who argue they are due additional pay under federal rules, according to The Washington Post, which first reported on the provision's inclusion in the omnibus.

In other words, Congress bowed to the wishes of a powerful special interest and used the federal budget bill to put a big thumb on the scale of a lawsuit that has nothing to do with the budget. It did all that as part of a piece of legislation that totaled more than 2,200 pages and was made public just over a day before both chambers passed it. The baseball provision is found on page 1,967 of the bill, tucked in between a grant for increasing background checks for people who work with children and a grant to "protect young athletes from abuse."

The language included in the budget omnibus was lifted from a bill introduced by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), called the "Save America's Pastime Act." The bill did not get any cosponsors and has not received so much as a committee hearing or a vote. Yet it's now law.

It's an example of "how our government is operating right now," Garrett Broshius, a minor league player turned attorney who is the players in their lawsuit, told Bloomberg Law. "You have billionaires lobbying on something proposed in secret and rushed into a spending bill even though it has nothing to do with spending."

In the suit filed against Major League Baseball and its minor league affiliates, players argue that some athletes make as little as $3,000 for a season that lasts about five months. Ballplayers have been exempted from federal minimum wage laws in the past because they've been considered employees of an "amusement or recreational establishment." The players were challenging that de facto arrangement (which dates back to 1922), but Congress' action last week means the arrangement is no longer de facto and the lawsuit is likely to fail now.

This doesn't mean—as Mother Jones and others have suggested—that Congress has condemned minor league ballplayers to work for "poverty wages." No one is forcing anyone to become a minor league baseball player, nor to sign a $3,000 contract for five months of work. Each player chooses to work for those terms, and most are doing so in hopes of reaching the major leagues and getting a much larger paycheck in the future. There are many circumstances in which people might choose to defer compensation in the present for the promise of greater opportunity.

It's also not clear to me that the ballplayers were headed toward victory in their lawsuit before Congress stepped in. Courts had been split, so far, on the question of whether minor league ballplayers are amusement or recreational employees—certainly, professional ballplayers, even minor league ones, don't have much in common with most people who fall into this class, which is mostly reserved for summer jobs and the like—and the two lawsuits have progressed slowly since they were launched in 2014.

Yet Congress' decision to kneecap those lawsuits and include the minimum wage rider in the omnibus bill is still a mistake, one that highlights just how broken the legislative process is.

If Congress believed legislation was necessary to address the situation raised by the ballplayers' lawsuit, it should have crafted that legislation in an open and honest process, with all interested parties having an opportunity to have their say. Instead, lawmakers slipped a bill that had zero co-sponsors into massive, completely unrelated piece of legislation and didn't allow any time for debate or amendments.

This sort of thing happens all the time, but that's no excuse. Every time it happens, the same message gets sent: If you have the money and resources to lobby Congress, you can short-circuit the legislative process and get what you want.