Saturday, March 19, 2005

Congress, heal thyself.

There is just something galling about it.

I am not a fan of steroid use in baseball. But there is something galling about the spectacle of watching Tom Davis and Henry Waxman pontificate about doing the right thing. Congress has for years been unwilling to substantively address the problem of money in politics, and yet given the opportunity to sit in righteous judgment of another industry, they do not hesitate. After all, it is great television

We live in a free market, and behavior that is reinforced will be repeated. Congressional action to curtail the influence of money in politics has always foundered on three simple facts. First, it takes money to run for Congress. Second, incumbents have a significant advantage in raising funds over challengers. Third, everyone wants to be reelected. Accordingly, each member of Congress must deal with their own assessment of the corrupting influence of political contributions. One might feel that it is fine, as they are happy to represent the interests of their large donors. Another might feel squeamish and defensive, but rationalizes that the money game is a fact of political life.

Fine. I recognize the alchemy of money and politics will forever be a fact of life, and is certainly nothing new. But the increased cost of running for office, combined with the increased transparency afforded by the Internet, has made the problem worse. Legislation ranging from overarching legislation like bankruptcy reform to hidden riders in obscure bills is bought and paid for. And even if you believe that any given piece of legislation is good, that the moneyed interests in that instance are aligned with the public weal, just the appearance that legislation is bought and paid for undermines our democracy and the credibility and integrity of the institution of Congress.

Baseball players who take steroids do so because of the strong incentives in a market economy to do what it takes to succeed. That is a simple fact. Brady Anderson, a long aspiring player who came up on the Red Sox, came to camp one year with the newfound body of Adonis. That year he hit 50 home runs, twice his prior total. Lenny Dykstra, who with Wally Bachman was a smaller player who survived in the sport on grit, became a hero in Philadelphia with a body unrecognizable from his Met years. Did they take steroids, or was it just a workout regimen? I don’t know. All I know is that many of their teammates, seeing these average players turn into big money sluggers must have seen them as inspirations of what was possible in the new world of performance enhancement.

Does Tom Davis take bundled PAC money from contributors with an interest in federal legislation? What sources of funding support the Waxman-Berman political machine in Los Angeles? How about others on the Committee? Like in so many other areas of the information age, perhaps disclosure is the best we can do. Did Sammy cork his bat? Was McGuire’s body acne chemically induced? Has Barry Bonds’ hat size grown? I do not know. What I do know is that baseball players, like Congressmen, will seek out ways to gain an advantage over their competitors. That does not make them bad. It just makes them rational actors in a free market economy.

Should some things be illegal and laws be enforced? Of course they should. Steroids? Yes, because it filters down from the professional to the amateur ranks, particularly as amateurs hope against hope of becoming professionals. How campaign contributions that to a third party observe have all of the appearances of legal bribery? I think it would be a good idea, but have watching several efforts at campaign finance reform over the years I simply do not believe that Congress will ever approve changes that threaten their own power in a meaningful way. Like baseball players, they are simply too rational.

I could just use with a bit less of the self-righteousness from our Congressional representatives who by their own conduct are placing a far more important institution than baseball at risk.

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