Legislation that would repeal Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption will be introduced by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan when the 104th Congress convenes today. But it seems highly unlikely that the government will act quickly enough to hasten the end of the sport's protracted labor dispute.
Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, announced yesterday that he would seek a complete repeal of the exemption, which allows baseball to act as a legal monopoly, but House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, indicated during the weekend that there would be no action in the House of Representatives during the first 100 days of the session. The new Republican majority has pledged to spend that time trying to fulfill its "Contract With America."
That means that major-league owners can press ahead with the new economic system they imposed after collective bargaining broke off 10 days ago, but they appear to be on congressional notice.
New Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has made it clear that he would support at least a partial repeal of the exemption, giving bipartisan support to the effort to make baseball obey the same rules that govern every other professional sport.
The Major League Baseball Players Association has lobbied heavily to keep the issue alive in Congress, claiming that the exemption has created the environment that has led to chronic labor unrest. The repeal of the exemption wouldn't necessarily end the baseball strike, but it would give the players the right to challenge the owners in court and the option to go back to work while the legal process takes its course.
"We're quite hopeful," said union assistant general counsel Lauren Rich. "We think the American public is fed up with all this and believes baseball should be treated like every other business."
Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Republican from Florida, will introduce legislation to repeal the exemption in the House, but it would be mid-April before it comes under serious consideration. By that time, Major League Baseball could be in the second week of the season, perhaps with teams of strikebreakers.
Hyde voted against a partial repeal of the exemption last year but has altered his position. He said on a television news show Sunday that he will re-examine the possibility of a repeal after the Senate acts.
"It's awfully hard to get excited about a struggle between the super-rich and the mega-rich," Hyde said. "But I'm one who's a great baseball fan, and a lot of Americans are, and this strike has gone on much longer than it should have."
There have been no formal collective bargaining talks since the last set broke off, but it seems likely that special mediator William J. Usery will try to bring the negotiating teams together again later this month. In the meantime, union director Donald Fehr will embark on a weeklong tour to update rank-and-file players on the status of the dispute.
"All I can say is that we think people [in the last session of Congress] were beginning to understand more and more," Fehr said. "We just ran out of time. We were not distressed by the election results. It's going to be an interesting two or three months."