Congress Strikes Out With Steroid Hearings
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.
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