WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Barton had a plane to catch, but he wanted to give college football officials a warning before leaving the highly publicized hearing.
Peering down from the podium, the Republican said in his Texas twang that unless the officials took action toward a playoff system in two months, Congress would likely move on his legislation aimed at forcing their hand.
More than three months have passed, and Barton's bill hasn't moved. Such is college football and Congress.
For years, lawmakers have railed against the Bowl Championship Series, calling it an unfair way to select a national champion. A lot of righteous thundering, however, has not yielded anything on the legislative front.
President Barack Obama joined the fray last year, saying shortly after his election that there should be a playoff system.
"I'm going to throw my weight around a little bit," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do."
But now that he's in office, the recession, two wars and health-care reform have taken him away from football, at least so far.
It seems unlikely Congress will take the initiative. To figure out why, just look at a map of the United States.
The current college bowl system features a championship game between the two top teams in the BCS standings, based on two polls and six computer rankings. After the title game, eight other schools fill in the remaining slots for Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and Rose bowls.
Under the BCS, six conferences get automatic bids — the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC, in states from Massachusetts to Florida to California to Washington to Illinois. Those conferences receive far more money than the conferences that don't get automatic bids.
"There are just too many senators and congressmen who represent districts where major BCS schools have a very dominant influence," said Gary Roberts, dean of the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis and an expert on sports law. "So you're not going to get any senators from Louisiana or Alabama or Florida or Georgia or Tennessee or Ohio — those are all states with major state universities that are major BCS powerhouses."
There's been no bill introduced in the Senate this year to revamp the BCS, although GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said he's looking into it. Mountain West Conference champion Utah was bypassed for the championship game despite going undefeated.
Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is one of several House members who have authored legislation aimed at forcing a playoff. His bill, which has four co-sponsors, would ban the promotion of a postseason NCAA Division I football game as a national championship unless it's the outcome of a playoff.
California Republican Gary Miller has three co-sponsors for his bill that would deny federal funds to schools in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision unless the championship resulted from a playoff system. And Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, has a nonbinding resolution calling for a playoff system and for a Justice Department investigation. He's got five co-sponsors.
Roberts says it's not enough.
"Sure, you've got Orrin Hatch from Utah who's unhappy," he said. "There are a handful of congressmen and senators from districts or states that feel like the BCS disadvantages them and their constituents, but they're a small minority of the overall Congress."
If there's a silent majority of lawmakers on the other side, "it's only silent as long as the issue is just a bunch of noise," Roberts said. "If a bill actually got some traction, you can bet that (Texas coach) Mack Brown would call the Texas senators, and (Alabama coach) Nick Saban would call the Alabama senators. There's no traction in Congress for doing anything about the BCS."
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, for example, told The Associated Press that while he supports a playoff system, "the one caveat is I have (a New York school) Syracuse, which benefits from the funding situation because the Big East gets in. You'd have to preserve that."
Barton insisted in a telephone interview that there's a good chance his bill will pass the House this year.
"The key is finding a place on the agenda" in a year crowded with high-profile issues, he said. "We'll keep plugging away."
Hatch, who held a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on antitrust, competition policy and consumer rights last month, has focused more on getting the Justice Department to investigate the BCS for antitrust violations. He told the AP he's working on letters to both the department and Obama making that case.
"Like I've said in the past, I'm not real anxious to get the government involved in regulating college football, but those who have the power to fix the system should do so — and they should do so voluntarily," Hatch said. "The BCS people don't appear too willing to consider any alternatives."
He said the Justice Department should look into the matter and report back to Congress either way — even if it determines there is no antitrust violation.
"I think this is a big enough issue," Hatch said. "People try to pass this off as some itty-bitty issue. Hey, it involves hundreds of millions of dollars, it involves unfairness, mistreatment."
The Justice Department declined to say whether it would investigate the BCS.
Stephen Ross, director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy and Research, and a former lawyer for the Justice Department's antitrust division, said the department will likely look into Hatch's request — but more as a senatorial courtesy than anything else.
He said the department generally takes the position that its resources should be devoted to actions that can't be brought by a private party and would be unlikely to launch a full-blown investigation into the BCS. Someone other than the department could bring a lawsuit challenging the BCS.
Congress has given the issue a high-profile look this year with a pair of media-generating hearings, but it also held them in the past — including a couple in 2003 that didn't lead to any legislative remedy.
That year, the House and Senate Judiciary committees both held hearings — the latter one requested by Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, now vice president.
"What about the teams that aren't in these conferences and the fans that aren't in these conferences?" he asked at the time. "It looks un-American. It really does. It looks not fair. It looks like a rigged deal."