TCS Daily

Playing Ball with Congress

By S.T. Karnick - March 18, 2005 12:00 AM

The House Government Reform Committee's (GROC) steroid hearings yesterday were interesting on several levels. Congress has so much power, of course, (or has arrogated to itself so much power) that anything it does is inherently important. Then, adding celebrities to the mix always makes for a potentially fascinating situation. Finally, the possible corruption of the national pastime (despite the decreasing popularity of the sport) is a cultural tide movement.

It remains unclear, however, that legislative action by the federal government is needed or appropriate in this matter. If the use of steroids is indeed a problem, one should think that state laws would certainly be able to handle it, especially given the demand-side approach Congress appears to be taking, as evidenced by yesterdays hearings. Nonetheless, performing an investigation to shine light on the problem is certainly an appropriate activity of Congress.


The reason given by the committee members as to why this particular committee was investigating the matter, however, is rather chilling.


In short, they have noted that this committee is empowered to investigate anything it chooses to look into. Equipped with subpoena power, this makes the GROC into a central investigative tribunal for the federal government. Anyone who falls afoul of the interests of the Congress -- which means anyone who should chance to fall into great disfavor in popular opinion, as baseball's steroid users have obviously done -- might be hauled before Congress and forced to testify in a nationally televised fishing expedition, with or without a grant of immunity from prosecution on either the federal or state level. At which point, taking the Fifth Amendment becomes a highly public acknowledgment of wrongdoing.


In such an environment, even the most leathery souls could conceivably lose courage. Certainly Mark McGwire seemed to do so, with his cringing, tear-stained performance and his entreaties to the committee that he had gone there to talk about the present and future not the past -- meaning that he would very much prefer not to be asked whether he had taken illegal steroids and other such drugs.


That the committee deferred to this self-serving wish was rather surprising. Usually legislators' arrogance and imperiousness get switched to overload when people publicly stand up to them, even when done in so shambling a manner, with the figurative forelock-pulling and digging of big toe into the dirt, as that which McGwire offered.


In making that entreaty, of course, McGwire could be seen as admitting that he had done the very thing the committee was investigating, that he had used illegal performance-enhancing substances. The committee members, however, chose not to pin him down on this.


Such an investigation by Congress also triggers a powerful temptation to lie, or at the very least to use Clinton-style verbal trickery, as was evident in the case of Sammy Sosa. In his written statement, the celebrated home run slugger said, through his lawyer and an interpreter, "To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs."


Well, that would seem to be that, wouldn't it?


Not quite. Note the qualifier illegal. One of the points that was made during yesterday's star chamber proceedings -- er, committee hearings -- was that it has been very difficult for lawmakers to keep up with the ever-increasing array of performance-enhancing drugs. Hence, what Sosa was saying, even if true, in no way verifies that he has not taken such drugs. He could have taken ones that were not yet illegal, or not yet illegal in the particular state of the union in which he used them. Furthermore, Sosa spends the offseason in the Dominican Republic. The laws regarding steroid use may well be quite different there.


On the basis of his carefully qualified statement, one could feel forced to conclude that Sosa has indeed taken the sort of performance-enhancing substances the committee was investigating. Yet they chose not to pin him down on the matter.


That the lawyers on the Government Reform committee failed to follow up that lead is an interesting matter in itself. Here they had two of the greatest sluggers in baseball history giving statements that could be taken as strongly suggesting they had used performance-enhancing substances while setting records in the national sport. Yet the committee simply moved on to the next batch of witnesses.


To be sure, there was a bit of pushing and shoving. Notably, Mark Souder (R-IN), said, "If Enron people come in here and say, 'We don't want to talk about the past,' do you think Congress is going to let them get away with that? If we don't talk about the past, how in the world are we supposed to pass legislation when you are a protected monopoly?''


Ultimately, however, McGwire and Sosa were given a pass.


Why not make an example of these two apparent miscreants? The answer is actually even clearer than Sosa's statement. The committee's purpose, as some members said openly, is to advertise the problem and show that the Congress is intent on doing something about it. But look at McGwire and Sosa. They confirm exactly what fellow former MLB player Jose Canseco said in his book about steroid use: for some people, it really works.


Unlike the teenage suicides and thirty-year-old heart attack victims, McGwire and Sosa became national heroes. That is entirely the opposite message from that which the Congress hopes to send. The committee's refusal to make an example of the two men is perhaps the greatest evidence that yesterday's proceedings were nothing more than a show trial.


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