REP. William Hughes, who is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, has been through the biannual crime bill crush more than once. He knows that just before adjournment in an election year, the enthusiasm for extravagant anti-crime measures rises as the day for facing the voters grows near. In commenting on the fervor of his colleagues, he ruefully acknowledges: "Anything that sounds like it might be tougher {on criminals} -- whether it is tougher or fair -- has a good chance of carrying the day."

The president is no tower of calm and perspective in this cause either. He and Attorney General Thornburgh have challenged the House, under threat of veto, to beef up the crime bill now in the Rules Committee. The measure reported by the Judiciary Committee, which substantially increases the number of crimes for which the death penalty is authorized, and limits habeas corpus proceedings in federal courts, has been labeled "pro-criminal" by Mr. Thornburgh and designed to "handcuff the police" by the president. Spurred by these challenges, the House refused to take up the crime bill this week under a rule that would have prevented a vote on some stiffening amendments directed primarily at making it easier to execute more people. That rule is now being rewritten in committee, and the bill is expected to be back on the floor by the middle of next week.

We are not neutral about capital punishment. We believe it is simply wrong to treat a murderer in the same inhuman manner he treated his victim. But if society demands the death penalty, simple justice requires that it only be imposed after fair trial and appeal during which the defendant has been represented by competent counsel. We see no reason more compelling than cutting down on paper work, to limit post-conviction challenges through habeas corpus proceedings. And we don't believe it is being soft on crime to insist on fairness.

It would be far better to have no crime bill at all this year than to have the one being prepared for House consideration. Congress is dealing in real human lives, not just campaign rhetoric, when it requires horrendous mandatory minimum sentences, broadens the confiscation of personal assets before trial and cuts short the appeals process in death penalty cases. Showing the voters that one deplores crime is easy. Demonstrating that one cherishes justice is harder. Voting down the crime bill would be a good start.