The Politics of Crime

Article excerpt

The unexpected defeat of the Clinton administration's crime bill is one of those moments in Washington where the politics obscure the issues. No one should mourn the failure of the House to move such a badly flawed measure to the floor for debate. But now, President Bill Clinton has taken up the challenge to "fight and fight and fight" for a crime bill, and House members say they may be willing to go along - with conditions. In the end, the battle will come down to a stark choice: Does the administration want simply to pass a crime bill, or does it really want to reduce crime?

The $33.2 billion package was put together to have something for everyone to like, but it had something for everyone to oppose as well. House members against gun control - backed by a desperate attempt by the National Rifle Association to assert its waning influence - railed against the ban on 19 types of assault weapons. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others were unhappy that the Racial Justice Act was dropped from the final bill while capital punishment for dozens of federal crimes remained. Conservatives ridiculed money for prevention programs such as midnight basketball leagues, claiming that legislation designed to fight crime had been turned into pork for social programs.

That unlikely alliance teamed to block the bill Thursday on a 225-210 procedural vote, despite - or perhaps because of - Mr. Clinton's decision to put his prestige on the line. The defeat was so strong and so surprising that it knocked the Democratic leadership off balance and delayed the start of House debate on health care. Precious presidential capital was squandered.

With crime a major concern of voters, the president is not giving up. A quickly arranged trip to a convention of police officers in Minneapolis Friday was the opening move, and his call for Congress to stay in session until a crime bill passes might put the pressure on. …