A Turf Battle Starts Over Steroids

Posted December 17, 2007 at 6:53pm

Members of Congress, under mounting pressure from the detailed report issued by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) about steriod use in professional baseball, are stepping up their turf battles over which committees have jurisdiction to push through legislation to detox the game.

No committee — including House Oversight and Government Reform and House Energy and Commerce, and even Senate Finance — wants to ride the pine on such a high-profile, all-American issue.

Baseball and other sports lobbyists say that although jurisdictional disputes can often be a gift to a client — making it easier to kill unwanted legislation — in this case, it could actually make the lobbyists’ job of preventing damaging hearings or legislation much tougher.

Turf fights “make it a lot more complicated,” and could lead to something of committee one-upmanship, with each committee trying to outdo the other with hearings and proposals, said one lobbyist working on the steroids matter.

Lobbyists and staffers working the issue also said they expect legislation early next year that could turn into law some of the recommendations of Mitchell’s report, which call for setting up a department of investigations and making Major League Baseball cooperate more with law enforcement into doping investigations. Some sources said it’s also possible that Members could go so far as to call for a federal body to oversee testing in professional sports.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, has planned hearings for Jan. 23 and is likely to introduce legislation in the new year. He already has indicated he may tread into other sports, including wrestling and perhaps even football and others.

But despite the turf battles, the Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), has backpedaled. Last week it announced a hearing on Mitchell’s report, but has since postponed the session until Jan. 15.

Lobbyists familiar with the situation said Mitchell, whose law firm DLA Piper conducted the report, asked the committee for more time in order for baseball’s brass and players union to have more time to deal with their responses.

Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for the committee, said the date was pushed to January because “it made sense to give baseball and the union time to review” the report. The witness list will include Mitchell, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB Players Association Executive Director Don Fehr. Through a spokesman, Mitchell declined comment.

Michael Barrett, a former Congressional investigator who is now a lobbyist, said he believes baseball lobbyists actually will have an easier time of batting down proposals because of the multiple committees trying to take a swing at the issue.

“It makes it easier to kill it, because you have to get it through both committees, which means you have more opportunities, more targets to slow the process down,” said Barrett, a one-time chief counsel and staff director of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in the 1980s.

Still, he added, Congress might “have some legislation to make testing mandatory. I once drafted legislation along those lines in the early 1970s to prohibit the use of amphetamines by pro football teams.”

Meanwhile, some lobbying interests are actually finding potential opportunities.

Shawn Smeallie, a partner at the American Continental Group, represents the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which does testing for Olympic athletes. It does not test Major League players; that is conducted by the National Institute of Scientific Research in Canada.

USADA, he said, helped the Mitchell team, and is now interested in consulting with MLB on how to set up a new testing structure — for a fee.

“USADA is not looking to do baseball’s testing,” Smeallie said. “I think what USADA is available to do is help baseball set up a true independent testing group. They have the expertise. They’re available.”

USADA also is working with the office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a bill he has to add human growth hormone to a list of controlled substances. HGH is a sticky topic because it is not easily tested in blood or urine, but is considered a performance-enhancing substance for athletes.

As for what Congress can do when it comes to baseball, Smeallie said he’s not sure what federal lawmakers can compel baseball to do, but he said, noting baseball’s antitrust exemption, “there’s leverage there.”

Lucy Calautti, the chief lobbyist for the MLB commissioner’s office, said there were no plans to add to its lobbying team in Washington, D.C., as it works to implement recommendations in the Mitchell report and keeps Congress apprised of those changes.

“It’s a really really important but tough document,” she said, indicating that she and her MLB colleagues in New York planned to work through the holidays. “We do take it very seriously. We always take Congressional activity very serious, and I look forward to working with Congress.”

The office of the commissioner has been generous to its lobbyists, paying Calautti’s firm, Baker & Hostetler, $420,000 so far this year, plus $100,000 to Cassidy & Associates and $20,000 to Arnold & Porter. It also retained Covington & Burling earlier this year.

Although the MLB players’ union retains a roster of top-tier lobbying talent, it has reported spending little more than $20,000 for the first half of 2007. Firms Patton Boggs, Glover Park Group and Bingham McCutchen all reported earning less than $10,000 each. Lobbyist Kevin McGuiness, a former chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), reported collecting $20,000.

When it comes to baseball’s political giving, the commissioner’s office has a political action committee that this election cycle has doled out about $80,000 to federal candidates, with 67 percent going to Democrats.

The players union does not have a PAC.

Campaign contribution databases indicate that almost none of the 89 players specifically named Mitchell report have given money to political campaigns, with the notable exception of Maurice “Mo” Vaughn, a former first baseman and American League most valuable player who, after retiring from baseball, co-founded Omni New York LLC, a real estate development firm.

Vaughn has given more than $18,000 in campaign contributions this cycle. Most of that money, more than $9,000, went to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but Vaughn also gave to the campaigns of New York Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel and José Serrano and to the presidential campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.).

John McArdle and T.R. Goldman contributed to this report.