It was not so long ago that crime was routinely described as "out of control," that crime-ridden neighborhoods were widely considered unsalvageable, that crime-fighting strategies for cities were compared to deck-chair-shuffling strategies for the Titanic. By the early 1990s, when Homer visited New York City on "The Simpsons," the electronic marquee above Times Square flashed: "Crime up 8,000,000 percent." Urban America had gone to hell, and it felt like there was no way out.
Now we know there was. Crime rates have plummeted, and cities have rebounded. In New York, homicides have dropped 75 percent since then, and onetime war zones now feature Starbucks and luxury condos. Experts still argue about the causes of the renaissance, pointing to community policing, community involvement, "broken windows" policies, truth-in-sentencing, economic growth and even innovative urban design. But nobody argues anymore that bad neighborhoods are doomed.
Except for one bad neighborhood here in Washington. It is enduring a crime wave unparalleled in recent memory, and even though its leaders are making noises about cleaning it up, many experts remain skeptical that its culture of recidivism can be reformed. Then again, the neighborhood in question, the U.S. Congress, has always inspired skepticism.
The scandals swirling around Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- as well as the plea bargain by California GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham on bribery charges -- have bolstered Mark Twain's hypothesis that America has no native criminal class except Congress. As new pay-for-policy allegations emerge about representatives with made-for-cartoon names like Doolittle, DeLay and Ney, conventional wisdom is congealing around the notion that Congress is what it is, and can't be changed.
But that was once conventional wisdom about New York, too. "The most important thing we've learned since the mid-'90s is that there's plenty we can do to clean up bad neighborhoods," said Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin. It turns out that aggressive policing really can defeat an anything-goes mentality, that entrenched criminal cultures really can be reformed, that potential offenders tend not to offend when they believe their crimes will be witnessed, reported and punished. "At some point, people have to say: Enough is enough," said Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein, author of "The Crime Drop in America."
In Congress, unlike cities, reducing crime is less of an end in itself than a means to the end of better government; members of Congress, their aides and the lobbyists who schmooze them can victimize taxpayers without breaking any laws. Still, in this moment of runaway cynicism, it's worth asking whether the strategies that cleaned up the mean streets can clean up K Street.
"Sure, why not?" Levin said. "You'll have to change the culture. But we've learned a lot about how to do that."
Congress is in the legislation business, so it's no surprise that most of the "lobbying reform" proposals floating around the Hill involve legislation -- to prohibit privately funded junkets, bar members-turned-lobbyists from the House floor and congressional gym, ban lobbying by congressional spouses and so on. But legislation didn't revive urban America. Some criminologists believe President Clinton's 1994 crime bill -- which in theory funded 100,000 new cops and new prevention programs -- helped provide communities with needed resources. But there's no evidence that its legal changes -- federalizing a variety of crimes, banning assault weapons, removing obstacles to death sentences -- made much difference on the ground.
What did make a difference was enforcing existing laws and making it clear the era of anarchy was over. The most famous example was the resurrection of New York, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton cracked down on graffiti artists, turnstile jumpers and other perpetrators of minor crimes. This "broken windows" approach was designed to restore a sense of order; just as unfixed windows fuel perceptions of buildings abandoned to squatters, unaddressed crimes fuel perceptions of streets abandoned to criminals. "If you deal with the graffiti and the other little offenses," said Rutgers University criminologist George Kelling, who devised the broken windows theory along with political scientist James Q. Wilson, "you send a strong message that you're not going to tolerate the big offenses."
Today, members of Congress know that if they're caught failing to report a gift, junket or campaign donation, they'll just file an amended report. Congress, after all, is mostly self-policing -- self-non-policing, really. The culture of silence on Capitol Hill is reminiscent of neighborhoods dominated by the Crips and the Bloods; members hardly bother to file complaints with the internal ethics committees anymore. And Congress doesn't have a mayor, much less a Mayor Giuliani.
But there is a Federal Election Commission and a Department of Justice, and they could be much more aggressive about investigating and punishing minor infractions on the Hill. That could send a message that the rule of law still extends to Congress, and there would be side benefits, too. In New York, police found that many turnstile-jumpers were carrying illegal weapons, or were wanted for more serious crimes. Not all fare-beaters were felons, but many felons were fare-beaters, and many fare-beaters who weren't felons turned out to be excellent sources of information about friends who were. The crackdown on petty crimes gave law enforcement a perfect excuse to grill potential offenders. If the chiselers who fudge disclosure reports aren't the real bad guys, they could probably rat out colleagues who are. "The research shows that crooked people tend to behave crookedly," Kelling said.
But more police do not necessarily mean less crime. The real challenge, Kelling said, is "increasing the sense of presence." Cops driving around in cruisers don't help as much as cops walking beats or riding bikes. Community police officers become fixtures in neighborhoods, interacting with good guys and bad guys. Soon good guys feel more comfortable turning to them, and bad guys feel less comfortable committing crimes. In New York, this was reinforced by a computer program that provided updated statistics about high-crime areas. Police commanders then flooded these hot spots with officers.