Friday, March 18, 2005

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 should have avoided blocking the cameras’ view of the House Government Reform Committee when it convened a hearing Thursday on Major League Baseball’s steroid problem.

We’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, threatened by al Qaeda, mired in budget deficits, facing gargantuan liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, struggling to sustain the our military forces’ fighting capacity — and what did this committee think warranted its urgent attention? Whether a few overpaid entertainers take forbidden pills to improve their performance.

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

Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, no conservative he, supported the committee effort, which he likened 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 performance-enhancing substances contributed to the surge of offense in recent years.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, had his own explanation why the biceps on cleanup hitters were 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 said.

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, even noting positive tests declined from 5 percent to 7 percent in 2003 to less than 2 percent last year.

Mr. Davis wanted us to think he was shedding light on a matter given 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 did not want 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,” Mr. Davis said, lest anyone forget exemptions could be repealed as punishment.

As for the players who were subpoenaed but had indicated they would not appear, Mr. Davis relished 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 as a good reason. To begin with, it’s hard to see any pressing need for Congress to be involved. 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 can indict anyone who breaks the law.

If the integrity of the game is in jeopardy, MLB is perfectly capable of deciding what monitoring is needed. If it wants to go the way of professional wrestling, what is that to politicians?

The committee made much of the alarming number of teenagers said to 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 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 favored this investigation insisted it would not prevent congressional action on other urgent national priorities. But it did prevent Congress from doing something it needs to do a lot more of: nothing.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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