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Commentary Redux: Lance Armstrong, Rascals in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and Rascals in the United States Congress

Mar 30th, 2016 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

The election season has once again prompted us to ask questions about our government and our electoral process.  Questions like, “Why do they publicly tell us one thing and govern in a different manner?” and “Why do they govern in a manner that is not in the interest of those that elected them and then develop a narrative that clumsily tells us that it does?”  A few years ago we published a column that provided a bit of in an insight into these questions.  Consequently we have brought back that column and present it below.  


We lament. We lament sending rascals to the capitol in Washington.  We lament sending rascals to the capitol in Harrisburg.  We lament the rascals in the cycling peloton who have used deceitful means in gaining our adulation.

As this commentary is being penned, the news of Lance Armstrong’s confession is receiving a great deal of press and comment.  The public’s response has been trending toward a demonization of the cyclist.  That response is guided by the assumption that his misdeeds were a consequence of a private decision of a cheater who possesses deep character flaws.  It is unarguable that the acts of Lance Armstrong were of his own volition and that he should be held responsible and accountable.  However, if an understanding of the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in cycling is sought, then this assumption is incomplete and short-sighted.

In the past decade, nearly every rider who has made it to the podium of the Tour De France has been sanctioned for the use of performance enhancing drugs.  Scores of others have been nabbed or have evaded punishment by the skin of their Lycra shorts.  Could it be possible that only cheaters and the immoral are attracted to the sport of cycling?

Those of us who follow professional bicycle racing have long suspected that the use of PEDs was common and perhaps nearly universal, at least in the European pro peloton, the major league of the sport.  Those of us on the outside do not have access to any inside information, so we really didn’t know.  As the Armstrong affair is being brought to light, inside information is being revealed.  We finally have a closer view of the culture of professional cycling and, concomitantly, a basis on which to respond to the question, “Are they all immoral?”

The culture of the pro peloton is one in which the use of PEDs is normative and taken-for-granted. It includes practices and structures that facilitate drug use in the sport. The cyclists, the team management, and even the governing body (UCI) are all creators and recreators of this culture.  Yesterday, the former president of the UCI revealed that it was common practice for the UCI to warn cyclists if they were in danger of a positive drug test.  They also educated team management about the ins and outs of the tests procedures.  It was a play in which we, the audience, saw the story of a sport with a few cheaters and an administration trying to rid it of the rascals.  On the inside, the actors knew the real story.

A common claim of those nabbed for the use of PEDs is that everyone is doing it and “one must ingest to contest”.  This, in fact, has been shown to be true.  It is also true that the cyclists believed that they weren’t really cheating.  They never saw themselves as the lone villain shooting up in a cheap hotel room trying to cheat everyone around them. They did not see themselves as immoral or as cheats; rather they saw themselves as racers just playing the game using the means available to them.  After all, they got the support of their fellow cyclists, their team management, and even the UCI.  Through time and practice, doping became entrenched and the evaluation of the morality of the act was left far behind.  Does the influence of this culture imply that cyclist behavior was not immoral and that the cyclists should be held harmless for their actions?  By most standards, the answer is no.  But having knowledge of the culture of the peloton affords us some insight as to why there are so many rascals in the peloton and it should encourage us to define the problem as more than just the isolated acts of an immoral few.

It certainly could be argued that not everyone who might join the pro peloton would succumb to culture of doping. However, there is a selection process at work here.  Only the most successful cyclists are invited to the ride in the European pro peloton. Those who have an orientation to win at all costs are the ones most likely to be selected; others are left behind.  They bring with them a super-competitiveness that becomes part of the culture.  Super-competitiveness is most consistent with the attitude that “I’m just leveling the playing field”.  Those that used PEDs in cycling’s minor leagues have an increased likelihood to advance to the major league.  Consequently, cyclists with a higher propensity to dope are selected to participate in a culture that tolerates and encourages doping.  It is the selection of those with a predisposition to win at all costs in combination with an enabling culture that makes doping “easy” in the peloton.

So that’s the story in cycling. But what does this have to do with our General Assembly and our Congress.  Congress currently has a disapproval rating of about 80 percent.  At the same time, it appears that the most popular retirement community for members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly is the Camp Hill State Correctional Institute.  The public is discontented on a number of fronts.  Much of it focuses on elected representatives using their positions for personal gain and electoral security rather than representing the public’s interests.  This manifests itself as behavior that favors the interests of those with the greatest ability to grease the representatives’ palms over the interests of their constituents.   Not only is this seen as a betrayal of trust, but primarily as the behavior of rascals with a lack of moral direction.  It is difficult to argue against that interpretation, but a closer look reveals more.

Upon closer inspection, the situation is not unlike that found in cycling: there are observable behaviors that are attributed almost entirely to the lack of moral direction by flawed individuals.  Also similar to cycling, these behaviors, in different degrees, have been engaged in by most elected officials not just a few rascals.  Also not unlike cycling, there is a culture in these institutions that support these behaviors, a selection process that recruits those who are most likely to engage in them, and a supporting cast that facilitates them.

It is a puzzle that we continually elect members of Congress with whom we are dissatisfied once in office.  Our remedy to this situation is that we re-elect the incumbent!  The incumbent re-election rate is generally between 90 and 94 percent for the House and slightly lower for the Senate. It’s not so much their policy positions with which we are dissatisfied, but their antics once they are in office.  Recently, this has been an inability to get any legislation past, but a more intractable behavior is the backroom deal making, both with other members and with interests outside of Congress. These deals result in a net effect of the legislative body representing interests for which we did not elect them.

There are two reasons for the intractability of this behavior.  The first is a bias to select members who are able to work the system—the deal makers and the opportunists.  Those that are deal makers and opportunists are able to succeed in the minor leagues of electoral politics and those who are not are left behind.  Selection to the big leagues favors those who can work the system and those with a high motivation to achieve.  This is especially true since the 24 hour news cycle has arrived.  Those that survive are those that can best deflect negative coverage and those whose desire to win have left them with a suit of armor for skin.  Their survival probability is largely independent of their level of sin.   So there is a selection process operating here.  The players and the super-competitive are most likely to make it to the big league of electoral politics, the U.S. Congress.

The second reason for the intractability of this behavior is the structure of the system confronting members of Congress once they arrive in Washington.  There is an ever ready army of lobbyists and favor seekers waiting to buy legislation and regulation for cash.  Congressmen are likely to accept these offers since the culture in which they find themselves contends that this is a necessity.  Over history, this position has becomes taken-for-granted, accepted, and not earnestly debunked.  This persists despite the obligatory rhetoric to the contrary and the negative coverage which the media affords this type of favoritism.  Despite the media’s overtures of discontent, they continue to cover this type of deal making as a taken-for-granted factor in reporting the game which they are covering—and they do report it as a game.  As the history of Congress has unfolded over time, the complexity of the deal making rules and procedures has cumulated.  If the elected is not willing to play the game with the leadership and his party’s caucus, he might as well take sick days for the rest of his term because his effectiveness will be non-existent.  At the end of his term, he might as well book his flight out of D.C. well in advance to get the discount rate since he surely will not have to cancel it.

Consequently, politicians with a higher propensity to be rascals are selected to participate in a culture that tolerates and encourages rascalism.  It is the selection of those with a predisposition to win at all costs and players in combination with an enabling culture that makes the embrace of these disfavored behaviors “easy” in the halls of Congress and in Harrisburg.

What is the moral of this story?  The moral is that we should not treat “the problem” as one conceived of as solely the immoral behavior of a few.  That is short-sighted and will result in the problems simply reoccurring with different players.  This does not imply that prosecuting the ones caught with their hands in the cookie jar should cease.  It only implies that those efforts should not end there.  It must also include efforts to reform the selection process, efforts to reform the continuation of the enabling culture, and efforts to reform the contributions of other institutions that support it.  This is true for both cycling and our legislative bodies.

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  1. Mike provides a thoughtful commentary on the similarity–and scope–of the problem afflicting cycling and politics. The most successful cyclists and politicians are those seek to win at all costs (and have seen this policy pay off handsomely at lower levels). Perhaps the problem manifests itself to varying degrees in all sectors of society. Highly successful businessmen, hedge fund managers, college administrators, Hollywood execs–all have been known to display similar traits. Personal ambitions do not have to lead inevitably to moral bankruptcy in all settings, but a pliable system with a cast of supporting actors can make such an outcome more probable.

    Mike notes: “It is a puzzle that we continually elect members of Congress with whom we are dissatisfied once in office.” Surveys show that we are dissatisfied with Congress as a whole, but are largely content with our own representatives and senators, thereby ensuring their repeated re-election. This state of affairs also renders representatives unwilling to compromise with the opposing party, leading to paralysis in government when no single party is in control.

    Mike is absolutely correct in calling for wholesale reform–individual prosecutions will have only limited impact. An engaged and discerning citizenry is also essential to reforming the political system.

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