March 17, 2005
Congress Strikes Out With Steroid Hearings

By Steve Chapman

It was said of one member of Congress that the most dangerous place in Washington was between him and a television camera. The same is true, though, of many of his colleagues, past and present. So anyone who values life and limb would not want to block the cameras' view of the House Government Reform Committee when it convenes a hearing today on Major League Baseball's steroid problem.

We're at war in Iraq, at war in Afghanistan, threatened by al Qaeda, mired in budget deficits, faced with gargantuan liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, struggling to sustain the fighting capacity of our military forces -- and what does this committee think warrants its urgent attention? Whether a handful of overpaid entertainers are taking forbidden pills to improve their performance.

The hearing rests on two well-worn premises that ought to offend the conservative sensibilities of Republicans, who control this committee and Congress. The first is that absolutely everything is a federal responsibility. The second is that the private sector needs incessant guidance from government.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who is no conservative, supports the committee's effort, which he likens to the congressional investigation of the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. What's next? Subpoenas to Ashlee Simpson and Britney Spears to publicize the epidemic of lip-synching in pop music?

The quiz-show scandals at least surprised people. No baseball fan, or nonfan, would be surprised to find out that performance-enhancing substances contributed to the surge of offense in recent years.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., has his own explanation of why the biceps on cleanup hitters are a matter of congressional concern. "What we'd like baseball to do is admit they have a problem, show what they are doing to fix it, and make sure that we can set the record straight for young people," he says.

But Major League Baseball has already admitted it has a problem by adopting a steroids testing program in 2003 and expanding it this season. League officials have explained it in considerable detail, going so far as to note that positive tests declined from 5 to 7 percent in 2003 to less than 2 percent last year.

Davis would have us think that he is shedding light on a matter that has gotten too little attention. But the steroid issue is more overexposed than Jude Law. The hearing looks more like an excuse for Congress to bully people.

Suppose Major League Baseball officials prefer not to be helpful in this so-called investigation? "They not only enjoy antitrust exemptions, they enjoy a lot of tax exemptions in terms of depreciation of players and so on," Davis notes, lest anyone forget that those exemptions could be repealed as punishment.

As for the players who have been subpoenaed but indicated they would not appear, Davis relishes his unchecked power of compulsion: "You know, they may fly in private planes and make millions of dollars and appear on baseball cards, but a subpoena is exactly what it says it is. They have to appear."

But having the power to stage a spectacle like this is not the same thing as having a good reason. To begin with, it's hard to see any pressing need for Congress to involve itself. There is no threat to public health or safety, beyond the danger of an idle pedestrian being struck by a 500-foot home run while strolling past a stadium. State and federal prosecutors are free to indict anyone guilty of breaking the law.

If the integrity of the game is in jeopardy, Major League Baseball is perfectly capable of deciding what level of monitoring is needed to protect itself. If it wants to go the way of professional wrestling, what business is that of politicians?

The committee makes much of the alarming number of teenagers who allegedly have tried steroids. But if it wants to discourage illegal drug use, it can attack the problem directly with more funds for enforcement and education, or with stiffer penalties for possession or sale of steroids.

Republicans are famous for trusting the free market to discipline self-destructive behavior, and it's more than adequate here. What if professional baseball declines to take effective action against steroids? Sports fans can abandon it for any number of entertainment alternatives. If consumers prefer steroid-free competition, baseball has ample incentive to accommodate them.

Those who favor this investigation insist it won't prevent Congress from taking action on other urgent national priorities. But it will prevent Congress from doing something that it needs to do a lot more of: nothing.

2005 Creators Syndicate

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Steve Chapman

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