Almost a Pretty Good Year

December 01, 1991

Had Congress enacted a crime bill and President Bush signed it, the first session of the 102nd Congress would have been considered relatively successful by normal standards. That this did not happen is the fault of the president. A good, if not excellent, bill enjoyed the support of majorities in House and Senate. But because right-wing Republicans oppose a crime bill that does not do everything they want, and because, after compromising and signing the civil rights bill, President Bush was fearful of offending the right-wing again, his veto threat led to a successful Senate Republican filibuster that killed the bill. Having the votes to maintain a filibuster means you have more than enough to sustain a veto. In the House, conservatives were even more certain to uphold a veto.

Killing this bill was a crime. It provided money for innovations in fighting criminals. It would have helped local police officers, who, of course, bear the real burden of fighting crimes of violence. It also contained elements conservatives have been pushing for years. Democrats and liberal Republicans, in the spirit of "let's do something," accepted a far weaker gun-control section than they wanted, and reluctantly agreed to extend the death penalty to 50-odd new crimes. But that wasn't enough for the president and such hidebound conservatives as Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill. Even if the bill is not as tough as Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, called it -- "the most stringent crime control bill [since the 1930s]" -- it's better than nothing. As Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., said, "We must choose between an imperfect bill and no bill at all."

The president may prefer no bill at all. He may prefer an issue. At least he sounds like a man who does. He bases his opposition to this legislation on its not going far enough in limiting death row appeals and in allowing wrongfully seized evidence to be admitted in criminal trials. He calls it "soft on criminals." That is absurd. This is campaign trail rhetoric. No one believes that these technicalities are central to the nation's crime problem.

A crime bill added to a civil rights bill, plus successful partnership with the president in waging war in Iraq and peace in the Soviet Union, passage of a big transportation bill that will make a good start on repairing the nation's infrastructure and provide millions of jobs, extended unemployment benefits in a package that was a compromise between the Democratic Congress and Republican president and several less dramatic successes all would have added up to a pretty good session.

Next year (assuming no post-Thanksgiving session), the president and legislators will have to do better together. The civil rights bill must be the model, not the crime bill.

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