DURING THE 1990S, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL EXPERIenced a sharp and unexplained increase in home runs. Long-standing records seemed to fall every week, and a nation of baseball fans watched captivated as stars like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire blasted monster shots of a type never seen before. And it wasn’t just the cleanup hitters—all of a sudden, every light-hitting infielder seemed to have discovered a home run stroke and previously untapped power. The change was evident beyond the statistics. Players seemed hulkingly bigger. Something was going on.
Baseball fans all over could see what was happening, and many suspected the culprit. Rumors of steroid use had hung over the game for some time. Debates about who was clean and who wasn’t became common talk in baseball circles. I was never a part of them—I’m not much of a sports fan. But as the ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, the evidence of baseball’s steroid outbreak appeared to me in a different format. The public health reports that crossed my desk showed an alarming rise in teenage steroid abuse. According to a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500,000 teenagers had used steroids, nearly triple the number just ten years earlier.
In February 2005, former Major League Baseball player Jose Canseco published a memoir, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, describing widespread abuse of performance-enhancing drugs in major league clubhouses that he claimed to have witnessed, and participated in, during his seventeen-year career. The book caused an immediate uproar because he accused many of the game’s biggest stars of having taken steroids.
Canseco’s charge alarmed me, because the culture of the professional clubhouse invariably becomes the culture of the high school gym. If professional players are using steroids, then college players feel pressure to use them to get to the big leagues, and high school players feel compelled to follow suit to land a scholarship and make the jump to college ball. And indeed, public health reports showed precisely this happening.
But what troubled me most was Major League Baseball’s reaction to the allegations. Commissioner Bud Selig dismissed Canseco’s charges as “sheer nonsense,” and made clear that baseball would not be investigating them. “The commissioner isn’t looking backward; he’s looking forward,” Selig’s chief assistant, Sandy Alderson, said shortly after the news broke. “I’d be surprised if there’s any significant follow-up.”
Accountability is important. And Major League Baseball, a multibillion-dollar, largely self-regulating industry, did not seem to be taking seriously what appeared to be a scandal of epic proportions. There were reasons beyond Canseco’s book to suspect that steroid use in professional baseball was a serious problem. The Justice Department had recently handed down indictments in its own investigation of steroid use in professional sports. President Bush, who co-owned a major league team before he became president, thought the issue important enough to have included it in his 2004 State of the Union address. And as every fan knew, the sudden explosion of home runs suggested that something was amiss with the national pastime.
Though it is not well known, Congress had examined this issue once before. In 1973, the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce conducted a year-long investigation of drugs in professional sports that discovered that they were being used “in all sports and levels of competition. In some instances, the degree of improper drug use—primarily amphetamines and anabolic steroids—can only be described as alarming.” The committee’s chairman, Harley Staggers of West Virginia, was so concerned that a public hearing on those findings would encourage teenagers to experiment with steroids that instead he met privately with the commissioners of all the major sports, urging Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to institute tough penalties and testing. Afterward, satisfied that Kuhn would do so, Staggers issued a press release in which he stated, “Based on the constructive responses and assurances I have received from these gentlemen, I think self-regulation will be intensified, and will be effective.” But thirty years later, self-regulation had plainly failed to stop drug abuse.
I suggested to Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chaired the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, that we hold a hearing to find out why Major League Baseball wasn’t taking a stronger stand. At the same time, we could use the occasion to examine the public health consequences of growing steroid abuse among teenagers. A serious baseball fan, Davis agreed that we should look into Canseco’s claims. Since Major League Baseball was disinclined to act, we decided that the committee would take up the task ourselves.
We also agreed that major league players should be among the witnesses called to testify at any hearing. Rumors of heavy steroid use had been swirling for years, and several players had testified to the grand jury in the Justice Department’s investigation of a Bay Area laboratory that had supplied many professional athletes. But no player before Canseco had ever given a public account of what everybody seemed to agree was the league’s dirty secret. Canseco was therefore an obvious choice to testify, as was his former teammate, Mark McGwire, who was among the players Canseco accused of taking steroids in Juiced, and whom we assumed would be eager to rebut the charge under oath. Another, Rafael Palmeiro, had publicly volunteered to testify, so we issued him an invitation. Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, and Frank Thomas rounded out the list of star players. Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, the head of the players union, were invited to appear on a separate panel to provide their perspectives.
Major League Baseball greeted the news of our hearing with shock and outrage: How dare we presume to meddle in its affairs! So virulent was the league’s opposition to the mere idea of cooperating with us that it hired a former House general counsel to argue that the committee lacked jurisdiction. We reminded him that the House rules state, “the Committee on Government Reform may at any time conduct investigations of any matter,” and that the use of performance-enhancing drugs, illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, was plainly a matter that fell under our purview. Even so, the league refused to provide a copy of its steroids policy, forcing us to take extraordinary measures. In all the years I spent investigating the tobacco industry—masters of obstruction and refusal to cooperate—never once did I have to issue a subpoena to obtain information. If the industry sensed it was going to lose a fight, it handed over whatever we were after rather than suffer the ignominy of being slapped with a subpoena. But not baseball. On the issue of steroids, the league proved more recalcitrant than Big Tobacco, and compelled us to subpoena documents and testimony.
The clamor was not confined to the league’s front office. Given the nature of the scandal and who it involved, the national media—and particularly the sports media—quickly became consumed with it. And at the outset, most people seemed to agree that we were the bad guys. Even Senator John McCain of Arizona, whose Commerce Committee hearing on steroids in 2004 had been the catalyst for baseball’s new drug policy, questioned the need for further investigation. The attacks came from every direction: What business did Congress have looking into baseball? Why would we give credence to the claims of Jose Canseco, an admitted cheat and drug user? What did we think we were going to accomplish? Who did we think we were? The hearing was widely assumed to have no higher motive than the lofty institutional arrogance of media-hungry lawmakers, a notion the league and its lawyers were all too happy to encourage. Many commentators criticized us, even while agreeing that steroids were “a black eye for baseball” that was “ruining the game.” Almost no one thought to look at steroids from the perspective of public health.
In February of 2005, the league’s stance on performance-enhancing drugs was that, while it might have been a bit slow in recognizing the problem, it had implemented, just weeks before, a tough new policy that it claimed would catch, and severely punish, any offenders. Bud Selig declared, “My job is to protect the integrity of the sport and solve a problem. And I think we’ve done that.” The league emphasized that under the new policy first-time violators would be publicly identified and suspended without pay for ten days. “The fact is,” Selig said, “that it is announced and everybody in America will know who it is. That’s a huge deterrent.” In meetings with us, senior baseball officials described the policy as the “gold standard” and contended, publicly and privately, that given this tough new approach, there was no need for Congress or anyone else to look into the past.
But even before the hearing, it became clear that many of the claims Major League Baseball was making about the strength of its new steroids policy simply weren’t true. When the league finally produced the subpoenaed copy of the policy, just three days before we convened on March 17, the language differed markedly from what had been described. Rather than mandating an immediate fine, suspension, and public disclosure, the rules decreed that a positive test for steroids would draw either “a 10-day suspension or up to a $10,000 fine,” a second violation “a 30-day suspension orup to a $25,000 fine,” a third “a 60-day suspension or up to a $50,000 fine,” a fourth “a one-year suspension or up to a $100,000 fine,” and, if a player persisted to a fifth, it would be left entirely to the commissioner’s discretion how to deal with him. Given that a number of major league players earn more than $100,000 per game, that hardly seemed a daunting penalty.
The list of banned substances did not include many of the steroids prohibited by the International Olympic Committee. Implementation, as well as any decision to ban more drugs, was to be overseen not by independent experts (as with the Olympics) but by a four-member committee of management and labor officials. The policy allowed players an unsupervised hour of grace between their being notified of a test and having to provide a urine sample, which would give violators ample time to take masking agents or other measures to avoid testing positive. Strangest of all, one clause of the policy stated that “all testing… shall be suspended immediately” should the government launch an independent investigation. Rather than the strict “one strike and you’re out” standard portrayed to the media by baseball officials, the actual policy seemed designed to allow the league to continue covering up or at least minimizing the problem of steroids, while talking tough about its principles. The potential for abuse was obvious.
A truism about lawmaking and oversight is that high-profile issues tend to be much harder to manage than those that don’t attract a lot of attention. This can be a significant obstacle. In high-visibility hearings (as the steroid inquiry was sure to be), you can never be entirely certain of what will occur and what the media will take away from the event. One way to mitigate this problem, and ensure that at least some media coverage is appropriately directed, is to release a letter in advance of the hearing framing the relevant facts as you’d like them to be considered. On March 16, the day before the big event, the committee issued a public letter to Selig and Fehr laying out the many discrepancies between the policy they had described and the thing itself.
Rarely is the precise moment at which public opinion shifts so pinpoint-clear as it was in the case of baseball’s steroids policy. As soon as the letter went out, members of the media and Congress alike realized they had been misled. They could see for themselves the significant disparity, and many felt personally affronted. No one likes to be duped.
The letter had the intended effect, which was fortunate—because while the next day’s hearing seized national attention and forever changed the way the public thinks about steroids and baseball, the focus quickly became the players rather than the policy. While Canseco repeated his claims, and Palmeiro, Sosa, and Schilling denied using steroids, Mark McGwire refused to say whether he had used them or not, repeatedly insisting, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” To the national media, and to millions of Americans who watched the hearings on television or listened on the radio, McGwire’s equivocation was treated as a clear—and astonishing—admission that he had indeed abused steroids, and opened up the possibility that many other of the game’s heroes might have, too. This impression was heightened a few months later when it was revealed that Palmeiro had tested positive for anabolic steroids just weeks after the hearing, slamming the brakes on what had seemed till then a Hall of Fame career.
While the frenzy resulting from the players’ testimony was unavoidable, my one regret is that more attention wasn’t given to the day’s first panel, which examined the devastating effects of teenage steroid use. Among the witnesses were the parents of Taylor Hooten and Rob Garibaldi, aspiring young baseball players who had killed themselves after abusing steroids. Donald Hooten searingly described how his seventeen-year-old son, a star pitcher, turned into another person after his junior varsity coach told him that he needed to “get bigger.” Taylor Hooten got bigger all right, gaining thirty pounds of muscle. But he also became angry and depressed, and ultimately hanged himself in 2003. Addressing the major-leaguers seated in the gallery behind him, Donald Hooten said, “Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters—you are cowards.”
Denise Garibaldi told us how her son had begun using steroids as an eighteen-year-old high school player, won a baseball scholarship to the University of Southern California, and competed in the College World Series. Rob Garibaldi had worshipped Mark McGwire, videotaping the slugger’s games on television and breaking down his swing “frame by frame” to emulate it. Steroid use brought him severe psychiatric problems that his father, Raymond, described as “mania, depression, short-term memory loss, uncontrollable rage, delusional and suicidal thinking, and paranoid psychosis.” Eventually Rob was kicked off the USC team and lost his scholarship. When confronted, said his father, he responded, “I’m on steroids, what do you think? Who do you think I am? I’m a baseball player, baseball players take steroids. How do you think [Barry] Bonds hits all his home runs? How do you think all these guys do all this stuff? You think they do it from just working out normal?” Rob shot himself in the head in 2002 at the age of twenty-four. “There is no doubt in our mind that steroids killed our son,” Denise Garibaldi told the committee.
SOME HEARINGS HAVE A DISPROPORTIONATE IMPACT ON THE NAtional culture, and this was one of them. The reaction was visceral. Suddenly, just about everyone agreed that this was a problem that had to be addressed. Major League Baseball had been given an opportunity to present and defend its steroids policy—Selig, Fehr, and the league’s medical adviser, Dr. Elliot J. Pellman, all testified—and the overwhelming conclusion was that the league had failed miserably. To his credit, John McCain revised his earlier position and concluded that Congress might indeed need to intervene in professional baseball. “It just seems to me they can’t be trusted,” he said after the hearing. “We ought to seriously consider… a law that says all professional sports have a minimum level of performance-enhancing drug testing.”
Ordinarily, a committee is fortunate to get any live feed of a hearing on C-SPAN. CNN might give parts of a really big one, such as that featuring the tobacco CEOs, live coverage. But the steroid hearing ran gavel-to-gavel not just on cable news stations but on ESPN television and radio. And the unexpected twist of McGwire’s testimony ensured that the subject was a mainstay of sports talk radio shows for weeks.
This was significant because the discussion reached an entirely different audience than the one that usually pays attention to congressional hearings. Though it did not generate nearly the number of headlines as the players’ testimony, the panel with the Hootens and the Garibaldis registered with millions of parents, many of them undoubtedly unaware, as those two stricken families had been, that steroids were a rampant and growing danger to their kids that might warrant a much closer and more thoughtful look. Framing the issue in this way went to the heart of its public health aspect and got people to think about steroids in a different way than they were accustomed to. The problem was not merely “the integrity of the game,” but also the health and well-being of American kids.
AFTER THE HEARING, TOM DAVIS AND I DECIDED TO INTRODUCE legislation exactly along the lines that McCain had suggested, while McCain introduced an identical bill in the Senate. The Clean Sports Act of 2005 would authorize the Office of National Drug Control Policy to enact a tough, uniform standard for all professional sports and require commissioners to institute stringent testing policies and penalties for players who test positive. We continued to meet periodically with league representatives to do the two vital things we had been asking them to do all along: to compile a report that took full account of the unwholesome years that were already becoming known as baseball’s Steroid Era, and to institute a drug policy with real teeth. But baseball officials still seemed to think that they could tough it out and stave off any serious changes.
It wasn’t until November, when it became clear that the House and Senate were going to move forward on the Clean Sports Act, that the league finally ceased its brinkmanship and committed to the kind of meaningful reforms that were needed, announcing several months later that former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell would conduct an independent investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the major leagues.
Over the next two years, while Mitchell’s investigators were at work, steroids never faded from the public spotlight. The ongoing saga of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), the company at the heart of the Justice Department’s investigation of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, produced a steady stream of headlines, as the names of star athletes alleged to have used its products leaked out. These included such high-profile ballplayers as Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and, most infamously, Barry Bonds. Then, on November 15, 2007, Bonds was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in his grand jury testimony about BALCO. For a moment, it seemed the clamor could get no louder—until, on December 13, George Mitchell submitted his report, and the controversy exploded anew.
Officially the Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball, the Mitchell Report, as it pretty much had to be called, was highly critical of both the league and the players union for having tolerated a culture of drug abuse. The report identified eighty-nine players alleged to have used steroids, among them some of the biggest stars in the game. None was bigger than Roger Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner. After several days of awkward silence, Clemens issued an emphatic denial through his attorneys that he had ever used drugs.
The Government Reform Committee had scheduled a hearing on January 15, 2008, for Senator Mitchell to present his findings and offer testimony. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Clemens and his attorneys repeatedly attacked and sought to undermine the Mitchell Report. Here we had such starkly contrasting statements—Mitchell’s conclusion that Clemens had used steroids, based on interviews with Clemens’s own trainer, Brian McNamee, who admitted having obtained them and specifically to having injected Clemens with them, and Clemens’s fervent denial of the charge—that only a hearing in which all parties testified under oath seemed likely to resolve the standoff. Having pushed so hard for an independent report, I thought it was important to find out if the most publicized charge could possibly be inaccurate.
As the committee’s investigators obtained depositions in advance of the hearing, a fuller picture began to emerge of just what steroids had been doing to professional baseball. Some players, like Clemens, flat-out denied the allegations and cast aspersions on the report. But many others provided admirable and even moving examples of how to acknowledge and atone for a mistake. Chuck Knoblauch brought his three-year-old son to his deposition, where he corroborated McNamee’s charge and admitted to having used human growth hormone (HGH). Knoblauch explained that he wanted to teach his son that when you do something wrong you have to admit to it and face the consequences.
Andy Pettitte, a close friend of Clemens’s, who, like Knoblauch, stood accused by McNamee of having used HGH, also confessed to the charge. Pettitte viewed his dereliction in religious terms and expressed the wish to give a full accounting of what he had done. He offered what was clearly a genuine and heartfelt deposition, confessing to several things that our investigators would have had no way of discovering, including the fact that his father had supplied him with HGH. He also told us of a conversation he’d had with Clemens in which Clemens admitted to using HGH. After the deposition, we told Pettitte that we were prepared to redact certain portions of his testimony, so that he could keep his father’s role private. But both father and son insisted that the committee release the entire unredacted testimony and lay out the full scope of their actions.
As our investigation proceeded, a seemingly obscure issue gained importance. Clemens told us that he had evidence disproving the Mitchell Report’s assertion that he had visited Jose Canseco’s Florida home in June 1998, when his team, the Toronto Blue Jays, was in town to play the Florida Marlins. McNamee insisted that Clemens had indeed been there—and that he vividly recalled Canseco’s wife comparing breast augmentations with Clemens’s wife. If Clemens was right, it would cast serious doubt on McNamee’s veracity. So began one of the more unusual inquiries in my career. Committee investigators tracked down the now former Mrs. Canseco, a model and minor celebrity, and Clemens’s former nanny, whom McNamee recalled seeing at the party. Both confirmed key elements of McNamee’s account.
As the hearing approached, and the hysteria surrounding Clemens reached fever pitch, Tom Davis and I had second thoughts about having Clemens and McNamee testify, sensing that a public appearance might go badly for Clemens and believing that the depositions we had collected—including a four-hour interview with Clemens—provided more than enough material to produce a compelling committee report that supported Mitchell’s conclusion. But when we informed Clemens’s legal team that we were willing to consider issuing a report in lieu of a hearing, they nevertheless insisted on going forward, emphasizing that Clemens himself felt strongly about having an opportunity to convince the world of his innocence.
In the days leading up to the hearing, Clemens’s lawyers pursued the rather unorthodox strategy of attacking me personally and making several provocative comments about the government investigators assigned to the case. Clemens himself embarked on a goodwill tour of Capitol Hill, going office to office shaking members’ hands and signing autographs for many of the same lawmakers who would soon be questioning him. The next day’s testimony was carried live on practically every cable network, ESPN reprising its wall-to-wall television and radio coverage. For several hours, Clemens and his lawyers lobbed charges at McNamee and sparred with members of the committee. It was never clear to me, then or now, what Clemens imagined he was going to get out of this. But the new evidence presented against him only strengthened the impression that he was obfuscating. In the end, his testimony was widely judged a disastrous self-inflicted wound, and his reputation seems forever marred.
SHORTLY AFTER THE GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE FIRST ANnounced plans to investigate steroid use in the big leagues, Tom Davis and I responded to the umbrage of the league’s attorney in a letter on behalf of the committee explaining our intentions and the reasons for our actions. “We are fans of baseball and admirers of professional baseball players,” we wrote. “But Major League Baseball and professional baseball players should not be above responsible scrutiny. We believe that Major League Baseball and baseball players should not be singled out for unfair or punitive treatment. But at the same time, baseball and ballplayers do not, by virtue of their celebrity, deserve special treatment or to be placed above the law.”
Baseball is an American institution. But by the time Jose Canseco’s book came out it had become clear that the institution’s tradition of self-regulation had faltered. This lack of oversight, and the tacit complicity of owners, players, and management, had consequences that reached far beyond the professional sphere. Steroids had become a drug problem that affected not only elite athletes, but also the neighborhood kids who idolize them. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one out of every sixteen teenagers had used illegal steroids, some of them when they were only in the eighth grade. The willful blindness of Major League Baseball was not the only reason for this. But it was a big part of the reason. The league had a responsibility to do the right thing, a responsibility that it had flagrantly neglected.
Issues like this make it clear why it is important that Congress’s powers of oversight extend beyond the government. They also show why Congress does not always need to pass legislation in order to bring about dramatic change. In the wake of the hearings and the Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball and the players union agreed on a much tougher drug policy, adopting many of the recommendations that Mitchell had laid out.
Baseball has by no means eradicated performance-enhancing drugs. Many people suspect that HGH, for example, which does not lend itself to easy testing, continues to pose a problem. But the league seems at last to have moved beyond the Steroid Era. While no one can precisely measure the prevalence of steroid use in baseball, a clear pattern of decline seems evident from recent data. As Peter Gammons of ESPN has noted, the Elias Sports Bureau, which tracks baseball statistics, reported that 2.01 home runs were hit per game in 2008, down almost 10 percent from 2006, and the lowest ratio since 1993. The days when muscle-bound players like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds would club seventy or more home runs in a season seem to have receded into the past. In 2008, Miguel Cabrera led the American League in home runs by hitting thirty-seven; Ryan Howard led the National League with forty-eight. Overall, professional baseball has gotten younger, smaller, and faster. And as several commentators have noted, baseball players have started looking like baseball players again.
But the most important changes have come in college and high school locker rooms. While we are only beginning to see the studies and statistics, the early evidence is encouraging.
In December 2008, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research released its highly regarded annual national survey on teenage drug use. The study, which had tracked a “sharp increase” in male teen steroid use in the late 1990s, now showed the reverse. In 2008, steroid use among twelfth-graders had declined by more than a third over a five-year period; among tenth-graders by more than 40 percent; and among eighth-graders by almost 25 percent. The same study reported that “there has been an increase in the proportion of 12th-grade males…who see great risk in trying anabolic steroids” (italics in original) and an increase in those who disapprove of peers who do try them.
More so than with almost any other issues in my career—such as tobacco, clean air, or pesticides—I’ve found that my reasons for looking into steroid use in Major League Baseball have not always been fully understood. While the Government Reform Committee’s decision to investigate professional baseball was, and continues to be, primarily looked at as an attempt to clean up professional sports, the broader motivation of protecting kids has gone virtually unnoticed. Thankfully, the effort seems to be succeeding on both fronts. There is much greater awareness today of the dangers steroids pose to teenagers, and education and testing programs instituted by high schools and colleges across the country give me hope that this recent pattern of success will continue.
Politics has a strange way of going in cycles. I arrived in Congress a member of the historic “Class of 1974,” the first elected after Watergate, and as one of ninety-two mostly Democratic representatives who were swept into office on a message of reform. Americans decided that government under Richard Nixon wasn’t working as it should, and they wanted something different.
In 2008, we experienced a similar upheaval, as millions of voters sent Barack Obama to Washington and expanded the Democratic majorities in Congress. The prevailing mood today, as in 1974, is one of great hope for change and reform. The eight years under George W. Bush were an object lesson in why an effective, functional government is necessary. Mired in the worst recession since the 1930s, we now see the cost of systematically dismantling regulation and allowing our government to become the private concern of the well-connected and powerful. Having largely organized our economy around the principle that markets can regulate themselves and still protect the public interest, we have learned again that government must play an active role to ensure that markets work for everyone.
We’ve arrived at a grim moment, but not one without hope. Throughout my career I have found myself fighting those determined to weaken and undermine government. At times, such as in the early days of the Reagan Revolution, public sentiment leaned very much against me. But we have now come full circle. Americans see plainly that strong government initiative, just as in the past, is vital to solving the huge problems now weighing on the country and the world.
Growing up in California after the New Deal had changed America so much for the better, my parents instilled in me a sense of how much government can be a force for good. My father liked to remind me that when financial excesses brought on the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in to protect ordinary Americans by regulating Wall Street and imposing a measure of accountability where none had been before, while providing families like ours a path to the middle class by guaranteeing a good education, a secure retirement, and, later on, health care for the poor and elderly. This is a major part of what makes our country great. During my forty years in the California State Assembly and the United States Congress, I have worked to carry on this legacy. Despite its imperfections, our government continues to accomplish great things. I wrote this book to explain how they come about, to share what I’ve learned, and to illuminate how we made some of the greatest achievements happen.
THE NEW GENERATION OF LEGISLATORS THAT HAS ARRIVED WITH President Obama will learn, as I have, that government is a fine and noble calling, but one that presents constant obstacles and challenges. It is always hard and often thankless to be effective, and it is the nature of our occupation that our successes draw less attention than our failures and the problems we have yet to confront. But good works are always possible.
The struggle for effectiveness is a constant battle. A congressman’s typical day often seems designed to prevent rather than encourage the processes of making laws and exercising oversight: Major hearings are frequently interrupted by floor votes; different committees on which you sit will hold votes and markups simultaneously; caucus meetings, regional meetings, and constituent demands all vie for your limited time; and many members are pressed by the endless imperative to raise money. It is possible to remain frantically busy from sunrise to sunset without accomplishing anything of significance.
One of the worst pieces of advice routinely given new members of Congress is to “be seen, not heard” and defer to their senior colleagues. Doing precisely the opposite is the surest path to success. Anyone can make a difference right away by finding opportunities to speak out and get involved. Patiently submitting to hierarchy only reinforces the regrettable delusion that nothing of any value can be accomplished by anyone less than a chairman, who can draw on a large staff, the advantage of seniority, and other perquisites of power. I have always admired Al Gore for inviting, while still a junior congressman, a steady stream of experts to his office to talk through the pressing issues of the day. Experts around the world in every field would jump at the chance to brief any member of Congress curious to hear their point of view. Anyone who follows Gore’s example can become a respected leader on a given issue long before he picks up a chairman’s gavel.
The art of legislating is essentially a process of learning. The key to mastering policy is to first master the facts of an issue, since the best policy always derives from them (and never the other way around). When, for example, the AIDS crisis confronted us in the early 1980s, understanding the basics about the disease was the crucial first step toward a proper legislative response. Only once we understood the scope of the problem could we turn to political considerations and begin looking for opportunities to move a bill. Congress is an imperfect institution, and among its 535 members will always be those who abuse their authority and thwart even the most desperately needed programs. Facts are what ultimately overwhelm them and allow good laws to prevail. The Ryan White CARE Act, though it took nine years to become law, is still doing its quiet good two decades later.
Congress is designed to stop things, not build them. So to block a law is much easier than to pass one. Moving something forward often requires having the subcommittee chairman, committee chairman, and the Democratic and Republican leadership all be in favor of it, which is rarely the case. On almost every issue in Washington there will arise an economic interest set on actively resisting a proposed reform, and this opposition—very likely well funded—will muster lobbyists, public relations firms, and advertising talent to try to stop Congress from acting. The odds are usually stacked against you.
That’s one reason why bipartisanship is so important. If the committee process is permitted to work as intended—as it did under chairmen like my early mentor, Paul Rogers—then all points of view will come under consideration as a bill is drafted, which only enhances its prospects. Those who can manage to navigate the arduous legislative process while still preserving the key elements of policy will probably have forged a consensus strong enough to survive the House and Senate, and wise enough to produce a law that will work as intended. I’ve made a habit of seeking out members of good will with whose views I disagree for exactly this reason: Henry Hyde on abortion, Orrin Hatch on pharmaceuticals, Tom Bliley on pesticides, safe drinking water, and tobacco, and Tom Davis on government procurement. If you can find areas of common interest and figure out how to bridge your differences, the result is usually legislation that truly works. In fact, I can think of no major law that I’ve had a hand in crafting that hasn’t depended upon bipartisan support.
Always look for opportunities. The greatest setback in my career was the Republican takeover of the House after the 1994 election. But losing the majority advantage need not render one useless. Another reason bipartisanship is so useful is that it presents opportunities to accomplish things from the minority. Teaming up with Tom Bliley to persuade Congress to pass the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1995 and pesticide legislation in 1996 created valuable laws. Had the Republican leadership been a little less obstinate, those accomplishments would also include historic tobacco legislation.
Even absent a partner in the majority, simply being in Congress affords one enough power to make an immediate difference. As a minority member of the Government Reform Committee, reading about problems in the newspaper, writing letters to federal agencies asking questions and demanding information, and then releasing the resulting reports to colleagues, constituents, and the media helped move the public debate on issues ranging from drug prices to teacher-student ratios. Any member of Congress can do the same thing.
TO PASS THE KIND OF LANDMARK LAWS THAT FUNDAMENTALLY change society means that you will have to take on, and then overcome, the most powerful special interests. This can lead you into a lonely battle, often against members of your own party whom you otherwise like and admire. But it’s essential never to be intimidated or discouraged. One consequence of the conservative campaign against government has been a rise in cynicism and apathy that makes it easier for those interests to operate barely noticed and has convinced many people, including some colleagues of mine, that Congress can’t or won’t look out for them. Over the years, I’ve experienced more than enough of these same frustrations myself. But I’ve also learned that the powers that the Constitution entrusts to every member of Congress are sufficient to protect the public interest. Used wisely, they can even overwhelm seemingly insurmountable foes.
In my own experience, whatever interest I’m up against always seems to have more money, better lawyers, swarms of lobbyists, and the resources to go on fighting for years. But tobacco companies, pharmaceutical makers, utilities, and government contractors share one overriding weakness: They’re usually seeking to hide certain central facts in order to maintain some economically advantageous position that makes them money. A sustained effort to air the truth is always the best strategy for defeating them.
One reason major legislation like the Clean Air Act is so difficult to pass is that large industries fight back by issuing what appear to be factual claims of their own, invariably warning of the catastrophe that will befall the industry, or even the entire country, should an unwanted reform be permitted to take effect. For years, utilities and chemical companies maintained that toxic air pollutants were not a problem—until we passed the Toxic Release Inventory and the hard data revealed a huge problem that Congress eventually was able to fix. An even better example is the 1994 bill I introduced banning smoking in restaurants, hotels, and other public places. The tobacco companies joined forces with the restaurant and hospitality associations to warn that if the law were passed, “smoking police” would drive away their clientele and ruin their businesses, leading to widespread bankruptcies and ultimately dragging the country into recession. We countered with data from the Indoor Building Association showing that a smoking ban would in fact save these same establishments millions of dollars a year, because tobacco smoke does tremendous damage to indoor spaces, requiring frequent and costly painting and cleaning, as well as expensive air filters. Several years later, after the ban went into effect, not only had public health improved, but the dire predictions turned out to be nonsense. The crowd still came out, and maintenance costs for hotels, restaurants, and bars plunged dramatically.
As we look ahead to our next set of national challenges, it’s vital that we keep these lessons in mind. Opponents of universal health care coverage, climate change legislation, and stronger financial regulation have already begun warning of the calamitous costs that serious reform would impose on an unprepared country. As the legislative process picks up momentum, these calls are sure to intensify.
PATIENCE, A KNACK FOR FINDING ALLIES (ESPECIALLY UNLIKELY ones), and the ability to persevere for very long stretches are the qualities that ultimately distinguish the best legislators. Confronting our biggest problems, like polluted air and pervasive death from smoking, is, if not a lifetime job, very close to a career. It can take years or even decades. But sustained focus and interest, and an ability to seize on openings as they present themselves, will eventually yield success, no matter how dark the present circumstance. The most significant clean air laws in our nation’s history took seed in the desperate defense against Reagan’s assault on the existing order. For the next decade, our proposals consistently reflected what scientists told us were the greatest threats to the environment: acid rain, toxic air pollutants, ozone depletion. Using oversight hearings to dramatize dreadful lessons like Bhopal and drive home the dangers of inaction, we eventually came away with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. And when, along the way, the science showed accumulating evidence of global warming, we began work on the first climate change bill, which we introduced in 1992. The years of subsequent effort and growing public awareness have laid the groundwork for what could soon become another historic piece of legislation.
The greatest lesson that my time in Congress has taught me is that even though significant achievements often seem likely to be long, hard, and wearying, they are nevertheless possible to bring about. Congress, as it always has, continues to produce important public benefits. Each preceding chapter is the story of a bill or a series of hearings that not only beat the odds by becoming law (or, with steroids, eliminating the need for one), but that, once implemented, has achieved what we set out to do. In some cases, like nutrition labeling or banning smoking on airplanes, the benefits of these laws have become so thoroughly ingrained that they’re simply taken for granted or, indeed, the original problem is forgotten altogether. How many people today recall reeking like an ashtray as they disembarked from a long flight? It’s amazing how often the most hotly contested issues are instantly forgotten once a good law has taken effect.
In forty years as a legislator, I’ve seen just about everything. I’ve worked with people who do a terrible job, watched plenty of good legislation die, and experienced the grinding frustration of being stuck in the minority party for more than a decade. If anybody should be cynical about our government and how it works, I should. But I’m not. Because despite the setbacks and frustrations, what Congress has achieved during my time has made clear to me that if you organize the right people, follow the facts, and force the issue, it is possible, and even likely, that good work can make a difference in the lives of millions of Americans—which, in the end, is a lawmaker’s highest purpose.