WASHINGTON -- Once again, professional sports and their leaders were hauled up to Capitol Hill on Wednesday by lawmakers who say they might try once again to legislate drug-testing policies for U.S. leagues.
Facing a House subcommittee that also held hearings on steroids in 2005, commissioners sat side-by-side with their sport's union chief: Bud Selig was inches away from Donald Fehr; the NBA's David Stern was next to Billy Hunter. Then there was the NFL's Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw, and the NHL's Gary Bettman and Paul Kelly, who rounded out the day's first set of witnesses.
"Let's get it right this time. ... Let's go ahead and get something into law that is acceptable," Texas Republican Joe Barton said. "It's no fun having this hearing every two to three years."
Barton's response prompted an interruption from Stern, who twice spoke out of turn to defend the progress made -- including more stringent testing across professional sports -- since the 2005 hearing.
"The sports leagues have gotten it right in the intervening three years," said Stern, who added: "This is an area where federal legislation is not necessary."
Shortly afterward, Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, who had earlier questioned whether Congress should be dealing with weightier issues, said to the NBA commissioner: "Mr. Stern, I would suggest that we have not gotten it right enough. If we had gotten it right -- if you all had gotten it right -- we would not be here again today."
Blackburn said the sports should be doing more to stem substance abuse at the grass roots level, and her comment to the witnesses that "you all have been very well coached" piqued Stern further.
"Enormous progress has been made," responded Stern, who then referred to the "voluminous, uncoached record" of material made available to the subcommittee.
"Things seem to be going in the right direction," Stern said during a break in the hearing. "If you read the statements of the leagues and listened to the testimony, that seems to be the case."
In the early going, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., reminded everyone: "I am already on the record calling for the resignation of commissioner Selig." Stearns was the chairman of this subcommittee three years ago, when it brought a similar collection of sports officials to testify. Stearns introduced a bill then that fell by the wayside.
"The purpose of today's hearing is to restart -- and perhaps finish -- the legislative process we started in 2005," said Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
"Let me just say, I do resent the elitists, the cynics and cultural critics who dismiss this issue as a populist spectacle," Rush said in his opening remarks. "I believe that we can move forward in a measured, deliberative and bipartisan manner with legislation that seriously tackles drugs in sports."
As members of the subcommittee delivered their opening statements, some backed the idea that it would be important for the government to impose standard testing and punishment on the various sports leagues. Others -- from both parties -- questioned whether Congress should be pursuing the issue.
"Sometimes I think we get our priorities out of order," Blackburn said.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said fans' opinions will carry more weight than Congress.
"The worse thing that's happening to these leagues is that fans are losing their faith that everything is on the up and up," Weiner said.
Not surprisingly, witnesses made pointed objections to Congress' intervention. Several expressed concern over a one-size-fits-all law that would cover all the major sports leagues. There was also the sentiment from witnesses that collective bargaining should be allowed to take its course to address drug problem in sports.
During the break, Rush said the subcommittee will continue to look at possible legislation, but he was not specific.
"In spite of the fact that they want to pronounce that they have it under control, I still think that it's not fully under control," Rush said. "And we have to do more."
Fehr did suggest one way in which Congress could help sports leagues: require commercially sold human growth hormone to contain a chemical marker that would be detectable in a urine test.
This panel is not connected to the House committee that held hearings Jan. 15 on former Senate majority leader George Mitchell's investigation into drugs in baseball and Feb. 13 on star pitcher Roger Clemens' denials of allegations in the Mitchell report that he used steroids and HGH.
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Clemens "committed perjury and made knowingly false statements" at last month's hearing.
Rush noted Mitchell was unable to attend Wednesday's hearing because he is receiving radiation treatment for cancer; a written statement from Mitchell was entered into the record. The chairman also said he was "exceptionally and extremely disappointed" that World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon was the only witness to decline the subcommittee's invitation to testify Wednesday.
A second witness panel Wednesday included the CEOs of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, along with NCAA president Myles Brand.
Horse racing took a few jabs during lawmakers' opening statements, particularly from Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who suggested that sport has done little over the last three decades to correct perceptions of a drug problem. He blamed steroids in part for the frequent breakdowns of horses on the track.
"Steroids have been banned in all professional sports except horse racing for a reason -- they're dangerous," Whitfield said.
He ended his remarks with the question: "Is it time to call the federal cavalry and send it chasing into your stables with guns blazing to clean up the sport of horse racing?"
During the second panel of the 4½-hour heading, National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alexander Waldrop said a "model rule" for steroids testing has been adopted in many horse racing states and that it is hoped that all states will adopt it by the end of 2008.
"If they don't step up," Waldrop said, "then it is incumbent upon the federal government to step up."