When it comes right down to it, Congress can do little to clean up the mess of performance-enhancing substances in Major League Baseball.

It could revoke the game's unique anti-trust exemption, which was imposed years ago by a judge who later became the game's commissioner. But it's unlikely a majority of lawmakers would vote to do so, knowing they would be giving away the only bargaining chip they have for influencing the sport.

It could stage a theatrical display of verbal fire and brimstone, which tends to be standard operating procedure for members of Congress at high-profile hearings. But those rarely have long-lasting effects.

Or, more likely, it simply could provide an opportunity for pampered and arrogant athletes to hang themselves in front of an enormous audience.

That's what happened three years ago, the last time the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held hearings to get to the bottom of baseball's steroid problem. People who say those hearings accomplished nothing are wrong. They forget that one-time home run champ Mark McGwire destroyed his reputation by refusing to answer questions, a fact reaffirmed this year when he once again was denied election to the Hall of Fame. They forget how Rafael Palmeiro destroyed himself by defiantly pointing at lawmakers and saying, "I have never used steroids. Period." Within a few months, he was proven wrong.

This time, the Justice Department has its own investigations going. The new sultan of swat, Barry Bonds, has been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. And the Mitchell Report has provided evidence of substance abuse by a wide swath of players, many of whom have since acknowledged their guilt.

One who remains defiant is pitcher Roger Clemens, who is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame unless he is proven to be a cheat.

We don't know whether Clemens is guilty. But the congressional hearing scheduled for Feb. 13 will give him little choice but to answer tough questions he has tried to avoid.

This is more than just a matter of Congress poking its nose into the affairs of a private business. Baseball is an integral part of the American culture. It is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, a "recreational asset" that has helped the nation through some hard times. Beyond that is the matter of that anti-trust exemption.

Too many young people are tempted to jump onto the steroid and human growth hormone bandwagon. If congressional hearings do nothing more than expose that problem for what it is, they will have succeeded.