WASHINGTON - The skirmish between Congress and baseball escalated yesterday when a House committee sharply defended its right to subpoena players, and a second panel ripped the sport for an "extremely weak" steroid testing program.
"You folks have the lightest touch on the athletes," Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, told a Major League Baseball executive during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on steroid use in baseball and other sports. "Really, your program is extremely weak, and it's just starting to get some teeth into it."
Stearns, the subcommittee chairman, convened the nearly four-hour hearing as a second House panel - the House Committee on Government Reform - defended its right to subpoena seven former or current baseball stars, including Orioles Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, to testify at its hearing next Thursday.
Baseball has accused the panel of overstepping its authority and violating players' privacy rights by seeking to confront them with questions about steroid use in the sport. The panel said its powers are clear-cut.
"Congress has jurisdiction over interstate commerce," said Phillip Schiliro, chief of staff for Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the panel's top-ranking Democrat. "There is no question the committee has jurisdiction."
The committee's Republicans and Democrats are united in their efforts to compel baseball players - four baseball officials were also subpoenaed - to appear and tell the truth, said panel member Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.
"We don't agree on a lot of things, Democrats and Republicans, but it's clear we agree on this one," Cummings said in an interview. "It's a very big deal. You've got to have integrity in the sport. We're trying to figure out how bad is this problem, and exactly what is Major League Baseball doing about it."
The committee completed a detailed response yesterday to a five-page letter released Wednesday in which Stanley Brand, attorney for baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the panel had "no jurisdiction."
In its response, the committee said, "Your legal analysis is flawed, and any failure to comply with the committee's subpoenas would be unwise and irresponsible."
While baseball pursues its challenge to the committee's authority, it remains up to the individual players to decide if they will testify. Besides Sosa and Palmeiro, the other subpoenaed players are Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees, retired former home run king Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox and retired slugger Jose Canseco. Players who don't show up could be charged with contempt and face the possibility of jail time if they don't succeed in having their subpoenas tossed out.
It was coincidental that the Energy and Commerce subcommittee had scheduled its own hearing for yesterday on steroids. It focused not just on baseball, but on steroid use in professional football and among college and high school athletes.
Charles Yesalis, a Penn State health policy professor and sports-drug expert, told the subcommittee that a big problem is that drug testing is not a perfect science. "Just because you test negative does not mean you are a clean athlete. We are limited to what is technologically available," Yesalis said.
Frank Coonelly, a Major League Baseball senior vice president, told the subcommittee that baseball had recently toughened its testing regimen. While the punishments for steroid offenders remain more lenient than in other sports, Coonelly said players are nonetheless kept in line by a fear of embarrassment.
"The real deterrent is these public figures will be outed," Coonelly said. "In many circles, Sammy Sosa, who otherwise has a Hall of Fame career, is known as a cheater because he used a cork bat. It means a lot more than a slap on the wrist to be branded as a cheater," he said.
But several subcommittee members said embarrassing players was not enough. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, characterized baseball's punishment for first-time steroid-policy violators - a 10-day suspension - as "a slap on the wrist."
An NFL representative testified at the hearing and said football has a mandatory four-game suspension - the equivalent of a quarter of the regular season - for a first violation.