WASHINGTON – Fresh from dealing with baseball and steroids, Congress chose Wednesday not to step into the ring as boxing's referee, voting down a bill to create a federal agency to protect fighters' health and wallets.
The House voted 233-190 against forming a U.S. Boxing Commission within the Commerce Department. Most Republicans opposed the measure, while most Democrats voted for it.
Critics attacked the bill as a misguided effort to expand the federal government to manage a part of the entertainment industry.
"This is a big government bill. It creates a new federal agency that provides for more regulation and is not self-financing," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
The Senate in May approved a similar bill offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Boxing has suffered from waning popularity in recent years, hurt in part by legal tussles between promoters, sanctioning bodies and the fighters themselves.
The House bill from Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., would have created a three-person U.S. Boxing Commission, appointed by the president to three-year terms, funded by licensing fees imposed on those who make their living in the fight business.
Proponents argued a U.S. commission would solve a range of problems, including fighters risking their health to fight in states with weak regulations, a lack of financial support for run-down boxers, and unscrupulous managers.
Rep. Tom Osborne, R-Neb., a former college football coach, said it was long past time to address the centuries-old lack of proper safety controls in boxing.
"How many people have to die, how many people have to have their brains scrambled? ... We wouldn't do this with animals," he said.
The vote against a federal commission came a day after Major League Baseball announced it was toughening its anti-steroids policy, spurred largely by the threat of federal legislation that would have been dealt more severely with players caught cheating with drugs.
Stearns said the boxing commission would pay for itself by licensing fees, but that left others complaining Congress had dropped more important work to focus on sports.
One of the sport's biggest promoters, Bob Arum, said he supported the federal intervention, but worried about the consequences.
The bill, he said, would have taken the sport "into uncharted waters. Can a federal bureaucracy regulate a sport fairly? Some things the federal government does very well, and some things they screw up, like Hurricane Katrina."
Arum criticized lawmakers for seizing on sports as a target for reform.
"The problems they generally deal with have become so immense that, like everybody else, Congress is looking to sports for a diversion. It's easier to make baseball steroids-free or make boxing better than to deal with the situation in Iraq," he said.