Tough Anti-Drug Bill Passes House Despite Qualms
The House, rushing to respond to heightened public concern over illegal narcotics, overwhelmingly approved late Thursday a multibillion-dollar plan for a broad-based assault on drugs.
However, passage on a 392-16 vote came only after the House added several amendments that liberals criticized as infringing on civil liberties. Among them were provisions allowing capital punishment for some drug-related crimes that cause death, ordering the military to help apprehend drug smugglers and allowing illegally obtained drug evidence to be used in court under certain circumstances.
“This bill is the legislative equivalent of crack,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) warned, referring to a potent new form of cocaine. “It yields a short-term high, but does long-term damage to the system, and it’s expensive to boot.”
But supporters of the amendments said that strong steps are necessary.
“The death penalty is a deterrent,” said Rep. Tommy Robinson (D-Ark.), who voted for that measure. “When you fry that drug dealer that caused the death of someone, that person is never going to come back and kill anyone else.” The measure is estimated to cost more than $2 billion, but it is unclear where Congress would raise the funds in this year of fiscal austerity.
It would stiffen penalties for most drug-related crimes, provide more manpower and equipment to agencies fighting drug smuggling and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on drug education and treatment.
While liberal Democrats had supported the basic anti-drug proposal, they denounced many of the amendments, such as the death penalty provision, that were offered at the insistence of conservative Republicans.
Republicans rejoiced at their success in winning House approval of some of the more controversial amendments, many of which had been bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee for years. It took a wave of anti-drug fervor across the nation to bring them before the full House for debate.
Argues for Amendments
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) insisted that these amendments, although controversial, were among the most important and effective elements of the package. “If you really care about hitting drugs where it hurts, forget about conferences, forget about publications, forget about scattering money as though it has bacteria on it,” he said.
Although many Democrats conceded that they had misgivings about the provisions, “how can you get caught voting against them?” asked Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), shortly after he joined the 355-54 majority approving an amendment requiring life imprisonment of adults convicted at least twice of selling dangerous drugs to minors.
Rahall said he was concerned that the prospect of such a stiff penalty might actually discourage juries from convicting defendants on those charges, but added that his election opponent might “distort a no vote on some of these amendments.”
Among the most hotly debated amendments:
--A provision, sponsored by Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) and approved 296 to 112, which would allow capital punishment for those convicted of involvement in “a continuing criminal enterprise,” such as drug smuggling, that intentionally caused a death. Although about a dozen federal crimes technically carry death penalties, this could be the first one for which it could actually be enforced.
That is because most of the others were passed before a 1972 Supreme Court decision overturning the procedures they establish for carrying out the penalty. The death penalty for airline hijacking was subsequently passed into law, but it has never been tested and many legal scholars believe that some of its procedures are unconstitutional.
--An amendment by Rep. Duncan L. Hunter (R-Coronado), passed 237 to 177 over the objections of both civil libertarians and the Pentagon, that would require stationing the military along the border to seek out, pursue and arrest drug smugglers. Moreover, it would require the Pentagon to “substantially halt the unlawful penetration of United States borders by aircraft and vessels carrying narcotics within 45 days” of the bill becoming law.
Hunter argued that only the military has the might to strike out at “literally hundreds of aircraft and ships penetrating our borders.”
Opponents claimed, however, that the amendment would violate a century-old law barring the military from civilian law enforcement activity after abuses committed in the wake of the Civil War.
“It brings the military, with all its awesome might and its unique mission into civilian law enforcement,” said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights.
Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Robert B. Sims said that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger views the measure as a “bad precedent.” He added that the Defense Department had been “extraordinarily active” in providing aerial and ground surveillance for law enforcement authorities.
Deputy Defense Secretary William H. Taft IV added in a letter Tuesday to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) that the additional burden of fighting drugs could substantially reduce military readiness for combat.
--An amendment by Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), approved 259 to 153, that would allow the introduction of illegally obtained evidence at drug trials when police made a “reasonable, good faith” effort to follow constitutional dictates on searches. Lungren claimed that 30% of all California drug cases are thrown out of court because of errors made by police in gathering evidence--a figure that was challenged by Democrats.
“If we don’t make fundamental changes in the courtroom, (the other measures included in the drug bill are) all for naught,” Lungren said.
President and Mrs. Reagan are scheduled to go on national television Sunday night to make a pitch for the Adminstration’s competing anti-drug package. While not all of its details have been ironed out, it is expected to call for spending up to $500 million over the next few years, about double the amount that had earlier been anticipated.
Administration sources said that federal officials are still arguing over the dimensions of an executive order that would mandate drug testing for federal employees in sensitive positions and whether government workers should be fired if they test positive for drugs more than once.
Public concern over illegal drugs and the crime they spawn has soared with the drug-related deaths this summer of athletes Don Rogers and Len Bias and with the publicity generated by the proliferation of new drugs such as crack.
In an election year that has yielded few explosive national issues, Congress and Reagan both have made the battle against narcotics a top priority.
Big Difference in Cost
Senate Democrats this week announced an anti-drug plan similar to the House bill, while their Republican counterparts are expected to produce a package next week.
The largest difference between the competing plans being offered by Congress and the White House is expected to be cost--an issue important in light of the restraints of the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law.
Lawmakers also must hurry if they hope to reconcile the differences among the various plans in time for Congress’ scheduled adjournment in early October.
Staff writers Eleanor Clift and James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.