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Crime Bill Roots Reach Back To Concern About Drugs

Crime bill passes.'' How many times has that headline been published over the past several years? Even United States Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware has lost count.

But as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and architect of the omnibus anticrime bill that gained final passage last week, Senator Biden is as aware as anybody of the painstaking legislative path the bill took, and of the scores of changes it underwent in its years of gestation.

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The bill - which includes provisions for new prisons, prevention programs, and 100,000 new police - is usually described as having taken six years to get through Congress and to the desk of a president willing to sign it.

Biden, however, said in an interview that one really has to look all the way back to 1977 for the beginnings of this bill, when Congress started thinking about creating the position of ``drug czar.''

In the last few years alone, he says, there have been ``hundreds, maybe even a thousand'' amendments considered. ``I could safely say, not even counting committee votes, there have been between 500 and 700 floor votes and House-Senate conference votes,'' he says. ``This has been an odyssey.''

The price tag has also varied widely, from just a few billion dollars to a high of $33.5 billion, depending on its scope and how many years it would cover. The final bill is valued at $30.2 billion over six years. It will be signed by President Clinton after Labor Day.

Why did it take so many years, and how did the evolving shape of the bill reflect the times and public attitudes?

A key factor, say participants in the process, was the 1992 election, which put control of the White House and both houses of Congress all in the hands of the Democrats. Clinton campaigned hard on the crime issue and once he was elected, Congress knew that its votes on issues like gun control were for keeps, because the president unlike his predecessor, would sign such legislation.

``Clinton said, `I'll sign the Brady bill and I'll work with you to achieve it,''' says Robert Scully, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, referring to the law that requires a waiting period and background check for the purchase of handguns. ``The main reason you didn't get anything through (under President Bush) was that there were no strong signals from the White House to the two houses (of Congress).''

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Also, says Mr. Scully, the law enforcement community is more organized and better at speaking out. At the same time, the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of Washington's toughest lobbies, had begun to lose in Congress and at the state level. Politicians discovered they could vote against the NRA and survive. This developed concurrently with the rise in gun violence, high-profile crimes, and youth crimes.

An aide to Biden describes how the senator was preparing last summer to introduce a new version of the crime bill and raised the issue at a Democratic policy lunch. ``The reaction wasn't, `Can we afford this?' It was, `Can we do more?''' says the aide. Several societal trends played into this heightened interest in Congress. First, says Biden, was the amount of juvenile crime and violence taking place.

``Juvenile crime and the randomness of the violence in general created an overwhelming consensus that we needed to get to youth before the streets got to them,'' says Biden. Thus, the constituency in Congress favoring prevention programs grew.

Second, Biden continues, was the nature of the rise in violence. Suddenly, it seemed suburban residents weren't safe at automatic teller machines at night. Americans' perceive that they are less safe than they used to be, even in their own homes, and Congress has responded to that fear.

Third, the upswing in the economy has pushed crime to the No. 1 spot in the public's list of concerns, making it all the more compelling to Congress. Clinton has federalized the crime issue - usually a concern of local government - to the point where he might be taking a risk, says Patrick Murphy, director of the police policy board at the United States Conference of Mayors.

``Clinton has put himself on the line on crime in a way past presidents have not been willing to do,'' says Mr. Murphy, New York City's ex-commissioner of police.

Biden applauds the growing federal role in coordination of policy on crime. As for the bill Clinton will sign, he credits the president in particular for the inclusion of the assault-weapons ban. Biden says he had included that in the first three bills, only to see them defeated in large part because of NRA opposition. So he decided to keep the ban out of this bill. But Clinton insisted it be put back in. ``He went to the walls for it,'' says Biden.

Looking to the future, Biden wants to return attention to illegal drugs, the root cause of the escalation of crime and overflowing of prisons that took place in the 1980s. Recent press coverage has highlighted a trend among youth who have rejected drugs after seeing the devastation they have caused among people now in the 20s and older.

``Now's the time to move on this (trend),'' says Biden. ``Unless we go through this window while it's open, it will shut.''

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