Culture Wars Erupt in Debate on Hill
By Michael Grunwald
Now the House of Representatives has launched its own wide-ranging search for solutions, converting the debates that have raged in America's living rooms into a flurry of bizarre legislative battles. The public furor over the "juvenile justice" bill has focused on gun control, but members have also fought over unexpected new measures to allow the Ten Commandments into classrooms, to ban the distribution of violent entertainment, and to address just about every other problem that has been cited as a cause of Columbine.
The debate had an aura of self-conscious irrelevance, as representatives kept announcing that there are no easy solutions to these complex problems, that no legislation can eradicate school mayhem, that the Columbine assault in many ways defies human understanding. But that did not stop them from pointing fingers: at the gun industry, at Hollywood, at squishy sentencing laws that let criminals reoffend, at godless liberals who expel prayer from school, at heartless conservatives who cut funding for anti-violence efforts.
As member after member invoked Littleton, Jonesboro, Springfield, West Paducah, it was easy to forget that overall juvenile arrests have declined 10 percent since 1994.
In the end, the Ten Commandments amendment passed, even though the Supreme Court ruled a similar effort unconstitutional 18 years ago. The violent entertainment ban failed, after widespread predictions that it would be ruled unconstitutional as well. But if there were ever any doubts that explosive news events can drive laws that affect millions of people, or that America's representatives are as divided as their constituents about the significance of Littleton, they could not have survived this two-day spectacle of speechifying.
"We've got an answer for just about everything," joked Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), a single mother of a teenage girl, and a co-sponsor of a successful resolution to condemn the "pointless brutality" of the entertainment industry. "But we're not going to solve the problem of youth violence here in Congress. You can't legislate behavior."
"To be honest, I don't know what the solution is, and neither does anyone else. I think we're all too anxious to be seen as doing something," said Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.). But moments later, she launched an impassioned plea for new restrictions on media violence.
"This is not a serious conversation about youth violence," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), echoing a common complaint. "This is politics."
Before Columbine, the Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act of 1999 was shaping up as a bipartisan effort to address youth violence, focusing mostly on prevention and prosecution.
At the insistence of Democrats who want society to pay more attention to young people, the bill included $1.5 billion for communities to spend on counseling, conflict resolution, anti-gang initiatives, drug courts, after-school programs and other prevention efforts.
At the insistence of Republicans who believe America is too soft on young thugs, it also imposed tougher sentences for juvenile crimes and pressured states to try more juvenile offenders as adults. There was another $50 million for full-time federal gun crimes prosecutors.
Those measures have all survived. But after Columbine, juvenile justice became an ideological battleground, and the House this week echoed the debates raging nationwide.
Gun control supporters demanded additional votes on mandatory trigger locks and background checks at gun shows, and pushed for studies of the gun industry's marketing practices. Cultural conservatives tried to switch the subject to media violence, pushing an unsuccessful amendment by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) to crack down on obscene movies, books and video games, as well as other provisions promoting "character education," requiring warning labels on obscene entertainment products and filtering obscenity off the Internet.
And that wasn't all. In addition to their Ten Commandments victory, religious conservatives won support for a measure promoting prayer in schools, and for an amendment by Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-Colo.), whose district includes Littleton, approving religious language for memorials in public schools. Meanwhile, the House rammed through amendments extending mandatory sentences to many juvenile crimes, and making it a federal crime to transfer a gun to a juvenile "if the transferor knows or has reason to believe that the firearm will be used in a school zone." The House also overwhelmingly agreed to recruit the surgeon general to study "how to combat the sickness of violence and to rebuild our national spirit," and to fund anonymous "school safety hot lines" for reporting troubled students.
The House did not entertain measures to make parents pay more attention to their children, or to expand mental health coverage, or to encourage jocks to treat Goths with more respect, but it discussed just about every other Columbine explanation. The widespread sense among members was that the era of big government may be over, but when tragedy strikes, Americans still expect at least the appearance of action from their politicians. In a typical swipe, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) described the debate as "full of solutions in search of problems."
"We can debate this stuff all day, but we won't fix the underlying issues," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), chairman of a House entertainment task force. "People will say great, Congress is working on youth violence, but we're really just playing the blame game."
The blame-game divisions played out all over Capitol Hill this week. On Wednesday, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) appeared with other relatives of gunshot victims on a small patch known as the Grassy Triangle, to blame school shootings on America's loose firearms laws. A few minutes later at the same site, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) led some amen-shouting ministers in a "God Not Guns" rally, blaming Columbine on the strict separation of church and state, and on the "liberal relativism that has hollowed out the souls of too many in our society."
"I got an e-mail this morning that said it all," DeLay said, as the ministers held their Bibles in the air. "The student writes, Dear God: Why didn't you stop the shootings at Columbine? And God writes, Dear student: I would have, but I wasn't allowed in school."
The culture wars continued on the floor of the House, where DeLay made a speech linking the Columbine tragedy to the culture of abortion and the teaching of evolution, prompting Frank to interject that even Charles Darwin was being blamed for high-profile outbreaks of youth violence. Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), wearing a ribbon in memory of Columbine, displayed an ad for a Beretta Youth Collection gun, "sure to make you stand out in a crowd." Emerson displayed the expletives-deleted lyrics to the rap anthem "Cop Killer": "I'm 'bout to bust some shots off. I'm 'bout to dust some cops off."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he was proud of the House's search for answers, calling it "a good debate that reflects the many opinions of this great nation." But some backbenchers groused that overblown rhetoric was metastasizing into ill-considered legislation. Take the new mandatory minimum sentences, they said. What do they have to do with Littleton?
"I suppose it would be nice to send Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to jail -- if they weren't dead," fumed Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from nearby Denver. "The American people should not be misled. These amendments won't make an iota's worth of difference on the streets."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company