Midnight basketball isn't pork

August 16, 1994

Many opponents of the crime bill that was denied an up-or-down vote in the House of Representatives last week ridicule it for its crime prevention titles, especially so-called "midnight basketball." But what's wrong with a program that would offer youths in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods recreational facilities? Or after-school cultural activities? Or job training? Or drug counseling?

Many Republicans who voted against the crime bill (on a procedural motion) in an effort to kill it, say they're for law 'n' order, but not for "pork," which they inaccurately label such prevention programs. But those programs were in the omnibus crime bill that many Republicans voted for in April but now oppose. The reason that bill passed then was that liberal Democrats held their nose and voted for increased use of the federal death penalty, of massive and expensive prison building programs and much, much tougher sentencing provisions which would affect state as well as federal crime fighting -- in return for prevention programs.

Both sides originally compromised to get what they thought was needed in the war on crime. The Republicans got the best end of the bargain; there is far more money for police and prisons than for basketball and related social and economic programs. Now the Republican leadership in House and Senate says the president and Democratic congressional leaders have to compromise away some of their part of the bargain. They're reneging.

Amazingly, some voices in the administration and among Democrats on Capitol Hill are being raised in behalf of going along -- anything to get a bill. President Clinton didn't sound in a compromising mood in the Rose Garden yesterday, but some White House aides later said he might be, and House Speaker Thomas Foley said flatly that the Democratic House leadership is willing "to take out some good programs to satisfy the critics."

(Republican leaders say they'll be satisfied only if the prevention programs are cut by half.)

In our view it would be a mistake for the Democrats to compromise the original compromise. We have always had our doubts about just how much good the original omnibus bill would do for law enforcement and crime prevention in the areas of the greatest need. There is no guarantee that there will ever be enough money for as many cops and as many prison cells and as many social programs as advertised. But on balance it seemed worth trying. But that was when the bill was still whole. If Congress isn't willing to stick to its bargain of attacking crime on the law enforcement and the prevention fronts, it might as well drop the whole thing. Without its prevention programs such as midnight basketball targeted narrowly on the communities where such programs would do the most good, and without the very limited assault weapons ban (also being called expendable) there isn't enough left in the crime bill to make it worthwhile.

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