Congress doing its job for once

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Among the more visceral reactions to this week's much-anticipated Roger Clemens-Brian McNamee collision at beautiful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Stadium was that of the vigilant taxpayer.

My inbox has been choked since Wednesday by earnest missives from concerned citizens who feel strongly that it is not the role of Congress to badger ballplayers, especially when there are far more urgent matters darkening the American horizon, to say nothing of the enormous expense of holding formal hearings and deposing liars, more liars and All-Star pants-on-fire liars.

This argument would seem self-evident and even painfully obvious, but I'm afraid it's flawed on several fronts.

First, it starts from the dubious precept that when Congress is not grilling ballplayers and sports executives and various clubhouse flunkies for the apparent purpose of providing non-prime time programming to ESPN, the legislative branch is otherwise doing a bang-up job at its myriad other responsibilities.

Well wait just a minute there, bi-cameral breath.

This particular Congress was essentially installed in November of 2006 to end the war in Iraq.

How's that goin'?

Having failed spectacularly at its principal purpose, I don't like its chances on health care, the looming recession, immigration reform, energy policy, the environment, veterans affairs, Internet safety, education, national security, and the one billion other issues correctly deemed more important than the preservation of Roger Clemens' image, such as it is.

Now certainly, just because Congress is spectacularly impotent, that doesn't mean it should ignore its larger mission and instead throw rocks at the Rocket in the public square. But as I've pointed out previously in this context, any time you can get 20 or 30 Congressmen and Congresswomen to sit in one room for four or five hours, that's four or five hours they're not out there canoodling with big pharma, the gun lobby, the trial lawyers and the hundreds of other lobbyists who poison the legislative process.

So count your blessings.

Even given the rare shot at four hours of national face time, only two of the committee's members, according to chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), even bothered to read the sworn depositions by the three players and one personal trainer on which the hearing was based. Some who didn't descended into classical political-hack buffoonery (Dan Burton of Indiana), or the kind of inexcusable idolatry of Clemens that curdled the entire proceeding (William Clay of Missouri).

One who did his homework was Mark Souder of Indiana, who prudently refused to meet socially with Clemens before the hearing, as had many of his colleagues, and offered his intense reaction to the aroma of burning credibility in the room.

"I'm incredibly disappointed with the players," Souder said. "The depositions are fairly devastating. The fact is, we can't get control of drug abuse in this country if people aren't willing to cooperate. We've had a situation where people have had their home firebombed by drug dealers, and still they've testified. Players think they're above that.

"It's disgusting that it took the federal government to get involved before anyone in baseball would do anything about this wall of silence coming from players, management and trainers."

And that is the greater and far more impactful conflict.

Players who use steroids and human growth hormone obviously feel no responsibility to set a good example for young people who'll venture into the same abuse on the possible enhancement of their athletic progress and their shot at glory. Players who don't cheat don't feel the responsibility either, or at least not enough to finger the cheaters. Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch eventually told the truth, but only under intense governmental pressure (Knoblauch even disappeared for a time rather than respond to a request that he testify). And still, players don't get it.

"Even if it's 100 percent true," Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said of the allegations dogging Clemens, his friend and former teammate, "he wasn't hurting anybody."

That's a perfectly ridiculous opinion.

Would you tell hitters who somehow can't catch up with a fastball thrown by a 44-year-old that he's not hurting anybody? Would you tell the American public with a straight face that the integrity of the sport hasn't been hurt by Roger Clemens? Would you tell the parents of the hundreds of thousands of kids who are using steroids that this kind of behavior wasn't hurting anybody?

"I believe the poor example being set by professional athletes is a major catalyst fueling the high usage of steroids among our kids," Don Hooton said in his congressional testimony in 2005. "Our kids look up to these guys. They want to do the things the pros do to be successful. Our youngsters hear the message loud and clear, and it's wrong: 'If you want to achieve your goal, it's OK to use steroids to get you there, because the pros are doing it.' It's a real challenge for parents to overpower the strong message that's being sent to our children by your behavior."

Don Hooton's son, Taylor, is dead. He killed himself after an extended cycle of steroid abuse.

This week wasn't about Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. It was about Taylor Hooton and the hundreds of thousands of kids influenced by their example. It represents a serious public health issue, a menacing instance of drug trafficking, and both are well within the purview of Congress if we are and hope to remain a government of the people.

Gene Collier can be reached at or 412-263-1283.


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