(Feb. 25, SENIOR WRITER'S COLUMN) With about 150,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, the economy showing signs of recession, the housing market in the tank and the national average price of gas hovering near $3 a gallon, Congressional leaders have been spending a lot of time tackling the issues that really matter: cheating in sports.

With time running out on the 2002 farm bill and a week-long recess approaching, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform spent more than four hours grilling All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens and his former trainer Brian McNamee on Feb. 13.

While Clemens and McNamee both came off badly, the real losers were the committee members who wasted the nation’s time — again — with this debacle.

“This kind of circus really bothers me,” said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.

It was unclear which kind of circus Burton prefers, but he certainly acted like a clown.

“Gee whiz, are you kidding me?” Burton asked McNamee at one point during the four-hour saga.

Perhaps Burton’s constituents should ask him the same question.

Sure, cheating in professional sports is a problem, and it’s unfortunate that children who look up to athletes are being presented with some mighty poor role models. But is this really the most pressing concern of our legislative branch?

The Clemens brouhaha marked the second time the committee has met to discuss the Mitchell Report, the 400-page tome on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball, since it was released in December.

When it was over, committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he regretted the second hearing because it was unnecessary. Then the congressman and Clemens’ attorneys argued about who was to blame for the fruitless exercise.

Gee whiz, indeed.

Waxman’s home state is facing a mounting list of critical issues — water, immigration, labor, food safety, etc. — but Californians can count on him to keep retired players like Jose Canseco and Chuck Knoblauch from cheating at a kid’s game.

Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., was tackling an equally pointless topic.

Specter, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he plans to push forward into his investigation of Spygate, the ridiculous controversy concerning the New England Patriots allegedly using videotape to gain an advantage on their NFL opponents.

Nevermind the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers — a team from Specter’s home state — already issued a statement calling the whole affair a “non-issue.”

Unfortunately, it’s about to become a three-ring circus. In addition to Specter’s video games and Waxman’s baseball shenanigans, yet another House committee is scheduled to take a look at drugs in sports the week of Feb. 25.

According to The Associated Press, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA commissioner David Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman are scheduled to testify before the House Subcommittee on Commerce along with representatives of players unions from all four pro leagues.

It doesn’t stop there. The committee also will talk with executives from the NCAA, the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the National Federation of State High School Associations and — believe it or not — the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

Specter, Waxman and their colleagues clearly are grandstanding. They have latched on to stories that get their names in the papers and their mugs on TV without having to deal with a divisive topic like immigration.

We can only hope that the legislators’ dogged pursuits of non-issues eventually will blow up in their faces.

The aforementioned farm bill expires March 15. That means the House and Senate will have only three weeks to reach a compromise, finalize a bill and have it signed by President Bush — who has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions — when they return from their week-long break on Feb. 25.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has said that if the farm bill negotiations stall, Congress might allow ag policy to revert to statutes from the 1940s.

It’s unclear where that would leave the produce industry, but that won’t be Congress’ problem. Congress will recess again for the last two weeks of March, not to mention the last week in May, the first week in July and four weeks in August and September.

The House’s Web site lists Sept. 26 as the target date for adjournment.

All those “district work periods” will give members of Congress plenty of time to spend their $169,300 salaries. Members received a $4,000 raise this year, despite approval ratings approaching the record low. The Associated Press recently reported that Congress’ 22% approval rating is the lowest for lawmakers since 1992.

If legislators continue to waste our time and ignore the real issues, those ratings and our problems will only get worse.