Let Them Drink Tap
Congress buys brand-name bottled water for baseball players who testify at its hearings. Why can't it spend the money to make sure that all Americans have clean water instead?


By Gersh Kuntzman


Updated: 7:10 p.m. ET March 28, 2005

March 21 - Millions of Americans were engrossed in last week's Congressional hearings about baseball's steroid problem. I know I got up early and had a few cups of coffee, so I wouldn't miss a word about how baseball's top stars used performance-enhancing drugs. A friend of mine said he was able to focus on the hearings for hours, thanks to his daily Ritalin. And another friend emailed me to say that she was depressed to learn that her hero Jose Canseco had been a doper—so she popped a Prozac and felt much better. When it was all done, my wife was so appalled by drug abuse in baseball that she couldn't get to sleep, so she took an Ambien. Which was too bad, because I'd popped a Viagra about a half-hour earlier. So I had a few beers and watched the recap on television.

This time, I wasn't bothered by the testimony (alcohol is a great drug for letting bygones be bygones, isn't it?). But I did notice something for the first time: On the witness table, in front of each of the ballplayers, were bottles of Deer Park spring water.

The image seemed odd to me. Now, I realize I'm no Woodward or Bernstein, but I could not recall a Congressional hearing that featured such a prominent product placement. And I've watched a lot of them over the years. All I seem to recall is a big glass pitcher of water and small glasses or cups nearby.

Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistleblower? Pitcher and glasses. John Holbrooke, Clinton's ambassador to the U.N.? Pitcher and glasses. Movie executives back in 2000? Pitcher and glasses. Ted Danson? Pitcher and glass. Oliver North? A pitcher, a glass of water and (believe it or not) two glasses of a brown liquid. But still, no product placements in the bunch.

Yet there they were, in front of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling and the rest of the ballplayers so eager to show that they are pure of drugs: Bottles of naturally pure spring water (except for Canseco, whose bottle may have been filled with vodka or gin). The image was so perfect that I felt it must have been cooked up by Major League Baseball, or the players union, perhaps—a photo-op designed to link pumped-up sluggers with a well-known symbol of purity. Or perhaps Major League Baseball had some licensing agreement stipulating that its players would always be seen drinking Deer Park when not guzzling Gatorade. OK, so it wasn't Watergate—but then again . . .

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association denied having anything to do with placing the Deer Park on the table. Both told me that the catering was left to the House Government Reform Committee, which convened the hearing.

So I did what any good reporter would do: call the committee and have his call not returned. Perhaps this was Watergate, after all. Checking further, I went through years of congressional testimony and noticed that bottles of brand-name spring waters started showing up on the witness tables sometime in the middle of 2002.

Bernie Ebbers, formerly of WorldCom, now set to be of prison, had Poland Spring water when he testified in 2002. What a witness drinks, however, remains something determined on a committee-by-committee basis, said a House source who (oddly, given the subject) requested anonymity.

Knowing that I was now onto something, I cajoled a Congressional researcher into calling up the statistics and was informed that the Government Reform Committee—one of more than 100 House committees and subcommittees—spent $1,359.80 on bottled water just in the first six months of 2004 (the latest year for which statistics are available). Of that, $894.51 was spent on Deer Park and $465.29 was spent on Poland Spring. That adds up to 5,448 bottles, the Congressional statistician told me.

A discussion of water bills may sound frivolous amid a debate about cheating in the national pastime. But you don't need to be the team's water boy to know that something is wrong when the U.S. Congress—a body that's charged with ensuring clean water for all Americans—gives its guests bottled water instead of D.C. tap. If it's good enough for hundreds of thousands of Washington residents, shouldn’t it be good enough for McGwire, Sosa and Canseco?

Beyond that, Congressional rules specifically prevent the House from endorsing any product used in its official duties (perhaps the Government Reform committee should hold a hearing on misuse of taxpayer money to pay for water that flows freely out of the tap, but that would probably require more bottled water for the witnesses). For its part, Deer Park denied that it has cooked up some sweetheart deal with the House committee.

"Bottled water has gone from being a fad to a fact of life," said company spokeswoman, Jane Lazgin. "It doesn't spill. You can take it anywhere. And it doesn't need to be refrigerated [it doesn't?]. It's just so portable, that it makes it so easy to get refreshed whenever you need it." She denied any collusion between the committee and Deer Park. She also said she'd get back to me, which she did not. A spokeswoman for Snow Valley water, which made an appearance at a House Science Committee hearing in 2003, was equally nervous about my line of questioning.

"We have lots of customers," she said. "I can't help you." Bottled water has only become that "fact of life" as Lazgin put it because Congress hasn't stepped up to the plate to ensure that all Americans have clean water. As a result, our elected officials squander our money on fancy beverages for witnesses. Not that the witnesses seem to care.

"They put a pitcher in front of me, but I was too nervous to pour myself a glass," said David Mueller, president of Fumigation Service & Supply, an extermination supply company in Westfield, Ind., who testified last year before the House Commerce and Energy Committee (a photo of him testifying—and not touching that cloudy pitcher of water in front of him—is at http://www.insectslimited.com/73 congressional testimony.htm). "When you're in front of Congressmen, you're too intimidated to pour yourself a glass of water."

Mueller said the pitcher was on the witness table when he was ushered in—as were the glasses that had been used by previous witnesses. "They didn't give me a new one, so I didn't know if I should use it," he said. "Besides, I really wanted to focus on what the Congressmen were saying." If so, he's the only one.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a reporter for The New York Post. Check out his rudimentary website at http://www.gersh.tv