The Legislative So-Called Process

August 27, 1994

We believe it was Washington columnist Mary McGrory who && labeled what Congress does as "the legislative so-called process." What has happened on the crime bill doesn't even deserve to be called a "so-called" process. Legislators showed far more than ordinary confusion, ineptitude, corner-cutting and rules-bending; they changed the nature of the debate and the fine print of the legislation, ad libbing (often covertly) as things unfolded hour by hour. Often for reasons we could not perceive -- and we doubt that more than a handful of congressional strategists understood.

It is also doubtful that more than a handful of members knew what was in the bill after its various 11th hour revisions -- and there were many 11th hours for this bill. We doubt that even one representative or senator or senior legislative aide can say with certainty what exactly happens after the Labor Day recess -- or after the November election. Even with legislation on the books, there will be a similar fight on appropriating the dollars the bill promises over the years. All of this dealing with the issue many Americans regard as the most pressing domestic concern of the day.

Is it any wonder that Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who has been in Congress since 1953, said this week, as he contemplated this messy business: "We dither and posture and insist on having our own way, while people are brutalized by criminals. This is the type of posturing which will ultimately make the Senate an irrelevancy in the life of this nation. If we cannot respond to the overwhelming violence in this nation, when people are afraid on the streets of their own communities, perhaps we are already irrelevant."

All this, incidentally, from the senator who dreamed up a phony funding plan for the crime bill that ballooned its ultimate cost.

As for the bill itself, in its final $30.2 billion form, if it lives up to its promises, it could help make the nation safer. To begin with, by including a ban on some assault weapons it drives another nail in the National Rifle Association's coffin. The next gun-control effort will be easier because of that. If states and localities can come up with matching funds, there should be many -- not 100,000 -- more police on the beat.

The prevention programs, fashioned for poor, high-crime areas like Baltimore, will be the most vulnerable to appropriations cuts, just as they suffered the most cuts during the last stages of the fight on the crime bill. But funds are provided that will help to keep some youths off the mean streets that lead to criminal careers. The assault weapons ban will make all streets a bit safer.

As for the addition of new federal death penalties, that will not affect crime rates at all. That was just politics. There was a lot of politics in this whole exercise. Some of it, which put partisanship above substance, was as ugly as the legislative process was messy. The six Republican senators who put principle above party deserve great credit.

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