Stop messing around -- call Barry Bonds

Say it ain’t so, Barry, and say it under oath. With this week’s hearings on steroid use, Major League Baseball is clamming up and its allies are questioning the investigatory powers of Congress. The House Government Reform Committee should not back down; it should go further and subpoena the man who most illustrates baseball’s problem with the steroid issue: Barry Bonds.

Say it ain’t so, Barry, and say it under oath.  
With this week’s hearings on steroid use, Major League Baseball is clamming up and its allies are questioning the investigatory powers of Congress. The House Government Reform Committee should not back down; it should go further and subpoena the man who most illustrates baseball’s problem with the steroid issue: Barry Bonds.

Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) agreed to subpoena current and former major-league players and baseball executives. Despite some accommodation to the committee, baseball’s reaction to the inquiry has been, “None of your business.”

Stan Brand, a former House counsel who now represents baseball, reportedly called the subpoenas an “excessive and unprecedented misuse of Congressional power.” George Will, who once wrote a book on government’s role in promoting private character, now shuns “soulcraft,” mocks the committee by calling it the “Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids” and accuses Davis of having “learned nothing about a government — or a committee — of enumerated powers.”

All of that high talk obscures two issues: Baseball has never fessed up to its steroid scandal, and Congress has broad investigatory powers that are an essential part of its legislative function.

Since the steroid story broke, baseball has toughened its formerly toothless policy for drug-testing players, but it is not interested in exposing who was using steroids or how widespread the problem is. Investigation might harm the game, supporters say, hinting that the surge in home runs after the 1994 baseball strike was what brought fans back to the game.

There is no doubt that the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa season-home-run-record race was thrilling, as were Barry Bonds’s 73 home runs in 2001, eclipsing McGwire’s record. But, in light of recent steroid allegations, these broken records may make fans doubt the integrity of the game even more. Consider that, before 1998, only Roger Maris (in 1961) had surpassed 60 home runs, but from 1998 to 2001 McGwire, Sosa and Bonds did it six times.

Despite all the forward-looking talk about “moving on,” baseball cannot put this scandal behind it unless it investigates its past. A stain will remain on the game, not because of investigators like Tom Davis but because star players allegedly cheated by enhancing their performance with steroids.

This uninvestigated past will become more cancerous when Bonds surpasses Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, probably next season, and becomes baseball’s all-time home-run leader. The chase for the record should be filled with excitement, but it will likely engender disgust. We will wonder who deserves the record, Bonds or “the clear” and “the cream,” euphemisms for steroids.

To make things worse, Bonds, like baseball, is unrepentant. First he denied using steroids, then he claimed that he might have unwittingly taken them, and then, while not admitting to using them, he defended their use and attacked those who would not just “move on.”

Take this juicy quote for example: “You’re talking about something that wasn’t even illegal at the time. … We’re entertainers. If I can’t go out there and somebody pays $60 for a ticket, and I’m not in the lineup, who’s getting cheated? Not me. There are far worse things, like cocaine, heroin and those types of things.”

Does that sound like a denial or a rationalization? Should we trust baseball? Should we trust Bonds? Are baseball players “entertainers” like professional wrestlers, or should we expect more from them?

All of this brings us to the phony arguments being made against Congress’s issuing subpoenas.

Critics argue that the committee has no jurisdiction or even that Congress has no business investigating private activities. But the committee has jurisdiction over drug policy, federal law prohibits the use of steroids without a doctor’s prescription and there are serious allegations that this law was being flouted by very high-profile people.

Should the committee have to look the other way or say “pretty please” if it wants to hear testimony on the subject? Should Congress be denied information if it wants to change the law or improve its enforcement?

And remember that a few rogue members of Congress may not compel witnesses to testify. The majority of the House sets the rules and gives committee chairs the ability to issue subpoenas. A majority of the House or two-thirds of a committee would have to vote to hold someone in contempt of Congress, and that charge must be proved in court.

Congress is not judge, jury and jailer but acts more like a grand jury. The bottom line is that if Congress wants to investigate illegal drug use in a high-profile sport, one that is granted a special antitrust exemption, it has the power to do so.

The Government Reform Committee is to be applauded for its hearing, but it should not have been shy about inviting Bonds. If the worry was that Bonds would make the hearing even more of a spectacle, remember that the real spectacle will be sometime in 2006 when Bonds hits homerun 756.

Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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