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Crime Fighters : Congress' struggle against change the President--and the publi--wants

August 28, 1994|SUSAN ESTRICH | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

Our democracy isn't working well these days. Things that should be easy--like the crime bill--are nearly impossible. Even moderate reform of the health-care system may be more than Congress can accomplish. A President committed to change is confronted by political institutions--the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate--wed by ties of money and politics to the status quo. What is striking is not that the President is having trouble on Capitol Hill, but that he manages to get anything through.

The crime bill, on its merits, should have been an easy vote: Election Day is 11 weeks away; crime is a top priority for voters, and the major elements of the bill--with money for prisons and police, expanded punishment, a ban on assault weapons and some funds for prevention--reflect a consensus approach to crime that has broad public support. If that were not enough, both houses of Congress had already passed the bill once; in the Senate, it had been overwhelmingly supported by Republicans. What remained was approval of a conference report that provided even less money for prevention--what the GOP now calls "pork"--than the original House bill.

The fact that the process was so painful, that it required major concessions to House Republicans and what Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas saw as desertions by six GOP senators before passage on Thursday, is a stark case study in what is wrong with Washington these days.

For the Republican leadership, the only goal seems to be embarrassing the President. This was the game from the beginning. Much-maligned midnight basketball--the first Republican symbol of supposed excess in the bill--was one of George Bush's "1,000 points of light." New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, two of the crime bill's strongest supporters, aren't your typical pork-barrel politicians.

Pork was just the excuse. This is, as always, about politics. The Republicans smell blood in November. The worse shape President Bill Clinton is in, the better they hope to do. The less he gets through Congress, the better it is for them as challengers. Dole's only regret was that he couldn't play it all the way. But he'll be back.

It wasn't just Republicans playing politics as a contact sport. The Congressional Black Caucus deserted in significant numbers--either because they care more about stopping the death penalty than providing police and prevention, or because they just wanted to prove how much clout they have. And then there is the National Rifle Assn., which is credited with intimidating conservative House Democrats into voting "no."

Most Americans support the crime bill's ban on assault weapons, but most Americans aren't well-organized and well-financed--the way the NRA is. In the House two weeks ago, the NRA managed to deny a Democratic President a Democratic majority on a popular piece of legislation. In the Senate last week, many saw the NRA behind Dole's procedural games.

And crime is easy, compared with health care. What the NRA did to the crime bill, doctors and hospitals and insurance companies are doing to health care. With Dole determined to deny any victory to the President, and the organized interests on the march, average Americans--people who don't give money to politicians or hire lobbyists--don't have a prayer.

More than $100 million has already been spent to influence legislators on health care. Political-action committees representing interested parties are making campaign contributions at the rate of $2 million a month. Who is representing you?

Even though a majority of Americans support the basic elements of the Democratic approach, there seems little chance of comprehensive reform. And even though virtually everyone, including Dole, supports at least some reform--so that insurance is not just for the healthy, and people can leave jobs without losing their coverage--the prospect of even moderate reform fades every day. The status quo is winning. Chances of Congress doing nothing are growing.

Getting legislation passed would be easier, of course, if Clinton were more popular. But one important reason the President is not more popular is because he is trying to change America. Whitewater and Paula Corbin Jones may provide the text for the attack on the Administration--but the subtext is change. His allies complain he compromises too much, but his opponents appreciate the threat that Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton pose to the status quo. That is why Rush Limbaugh attacks the President every day.

The caricature of Clinton is that he believes in big government and bureaucracy. That is a caricature because no one--certainly, no one elected to any office in the 1990s, much less the only Democrat to win the presidency in 12 years--does so on a platform of big government and bureaucracy.

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