Who says crime doesn’t pay?
For mayors, police departments, state correctional authorities, and proponents of a vast array of social programs, the federal crime bill now moving toward final congressional approval is shaping up as a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza.
Behind the high-wattage debates over the death penalty and life imprisonment for three-time felons, the crime bill has swelled into President Clinton’s largest new domestic spending initiative--and it might not be finished growing.
Under the banner of fighting crime, the Administration is shaping a bill that represents either the largest federal effort ever to supplement local law enforcement, a vast expansion of social programs or a revival of revenue sharing for the cities by another name.
“This is probably the biggest domestic buildup of any law I can think of,” said Steven Moore, director of fiscal studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “This has become spectacularly expensive. It just seems like a Christmas tree that people are hanging things on.”
Liberals and conservatives have attached so many programs to the crime bill that the Administration is privately discussing the possibility of increasing the funding for the final legislation to nearly $30 billion over five years, rather than risk disappointing either side.
Many observers expected the final funding level to come in near the $22.3 billion approved by the Senate last fall, considerably lower than the $28 billion endorsed by the House earlier this month. That was because only the Senate managed to identify a funding source for the new spending.
But, one senior official said, the Administration now fears that insisting on the lower figure in the House-Senate conference committee could fracture the bill’s fragile legislative coalition, pitting liberal advocates of prevention programs against conservatives who prefer to pour the money into prisons.
Instead, the official said, the Administration is considering enlarging the pie by guaranteeing the crime package an additional year of funds from the revenue source the Senate established last fall.
The Senate allocated to the crime legislation all the savings for the next five years from a 252,000-person reduction in the federal work force recommended by the Administration. Over five years, those reductions are expected to produce the $22.3 billion the Senate bill would spend.
The plan the Administration is now considering also would direct to the crime bill most of the savings expected from the sixth year of personnel reductions. That could produce as much as $8 billion in additional funding--enough to cover both the House and Senate priorities if the spending also is stretched out to six years, officials said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who pushed for a larger bill at a recent strategy session with Clinton, said that sweetening the pot is the only way to meet the minimal demands of the left and right in the legislative struggle.
“If you are going to get up to that $27- to $29-billion range (required to keep the coalition together), the only way to fund it is to go to that sixth year,” he said.
Others involved in the crime debate see in the rising price tag a refusal by the Administration and Congress to choose between competing interests. “It sounds like just another cop-out . . . to avoid making hard choices,” said Beth Carter, national coordinator of the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy, a coalition of law enforcement officials.
The crime bill’s insatiable growth, she said, “is clearly at the expense of other priorities.”
Even one senior White House official said that while the additional money “might be helpful” in passing the final legislation, “the obvious question is, do we need all that money for crime? It is sort of analogous to last year. Last year you couldn’t cut the budget enough. This year you can’t spend enough on crime.”
The crime bill’s unique status stands out more clearly against the decisions Clinton made last week on welfare reform. At the same time officials were contemplating coughing up billions of dollars more for crime, Clinton approved a bare-bones welfare package that will spend just $9.5 billion over the next five years. In the final pinch, plans to expand child-care assistance for the working poor were cut by about $2 billion--prompting loud protests from liberals inside and outside the government.
But if that comparison suggests that social priorities are being flattened by an election-year stampede to crack down on criminals, the actual ideological calculus is muddier. That’s because the crime bill--for all the attention devoted to its money for building prisons and hiring police officers--is certain to include billions of dollars in new social programs.
The legislation clearly specifies some of those programs. Both the House and Senate bills, for instance, provide hundreds of millions of dollars to expand drug treatment for prisoners, improve safety in schools, and form “midnight basketball” leagues for young people who might otherwise spend their evenings less innocently.
The House bill, in particular, goes further to establish huge, somewhat loosely defined grant programs that critics see as a new form of general aid to cities hidden under the cloak of fighting crime.
“It’s a total absurdity,” Moore said. “All the urban programs that the Reagan era got rid of, this is just resurrecting them under a different guise.”
Included in the House bill are three separate funding pools of more than $1 billion each to help cities finance social programs they believe might reduce crime, as well as a half-billion-dollar job-training initiative for disadvantaged youths.
Under one of these plans, 15 cities would divide $1.5 billion to create “model intensive prevention zones” that would target new spending on anything from “alternative activities and programs for youth” to improving public transportation and street lighting.
In addition, the House approved $2 billion in aid to cities with high unemployment or a high concentration of poverty, an estimated 20,000 localities in all. With this money--which would be guaranteed by formula, not distributed through grants--cities can fund education, health and job programs, as long as they are “related to crime prevention,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who sponsored the measure.
In addition to that, the bill would establish a $1.3-billion “Ounce of Prevention Fund” that would provide cities with yet more grants for social programs aimed at deterring crime--such as keeping schools open into the evening in troubled neighborhoods.
And in addition to that , the bill promises $525 million to fund job-training initiatives in distressed areas.
“This laundry list suggests to me that Congress doesn’t have any good ideas about how to prevent crime either,” said James Q. Wilson, a law enforcement expert at the UCLA School of Management. “It seems to me another example of Congress throwing money at a problem and hoping some will stick.”
Administration officials acknowledge that creating so many separate and potentially overlapping prevention programs may not make sense; privately, some even agree that the Conyers plan is revenue sharing by another name, and question its relevance to fighting crime.
But for both political and policy reasons, the Administration is committed to protecting the full $9 billion the House allocated to prevention. On policy grounds, the Administration believes the money will permit large-scale tests of existing experiments aimed at providing young people with an array of alternatives to crime, said Peter Edelman, the counselor in the Health and Human Services Department and co-chairman of an Administration task force on violence.
Moreover, the Administration is convinced that House liberals will abandon the legislation if the prevention funds are cut, officials said.
Clinton’s top priority for the legislation is fulfilling his campaign promise to hire 100,000 new police officers; that adds another $9 billion to the bottom line. The Administration also supports several billion dollars in assorted spending included in both bills, such as money to establish a police corps similar to the national service program, and funds to hire more FBI agents.
Both the White House and congressional Democratic leaders are committed to including sufficient spending on prison construction to ensure that Republicans can’t paint the final package as soft on criminals, officials say. Biden’s estimate on that tab: at least $6 billion for prisons (compared with $3 billion in the Senate bill and more than $13 billion in the House legislation), plus another $3 billion for military-style boot camps.
That may be enough to satisfy all the partisans in the crime debate, but the prospect of pouring so much money into these new spending programs distresses Congress’ small band of deficit hawks. They see in this spending escalation the prototypical legislative bidding war that last year’s pay-as-you-go budget rules were intended to eliminate.
“The federal government is broke, and we now have a crime bill totaling $20 (billion) to $30 billion,” said Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.). “There is no focus here. It is amazing the ideas that found themselves into the crime bill.”
Biden countered: “Tim is wrong that the buying off is buying off for a political need. There is a legitimate need for these programs.”
Like other fiscal hawks, Penny is skeptical that the full personnel cuts expected to fund the crime bill will ever materialize. Last week, the House passed legislation exempting the Department of Veterans Affairs health program from the proposed personnel cutbacks, “which makes me worry we don’t have the guts to stick to our schedule,” Penny said.
If that happens, many say Congress will have to cut other programs to fund its crime initiatives, or scale back the expansive promises now being carved into law. “One of the problems of running the price tag on this bill up so high,” Penny said, “is we are promising way more than we can deliver.”