FIVE TIMES in the past seven years Congress has passed a huge crime bill, usually in the final days of the session. This year's version was passed by the House yesterday and, after conference with the Senate, is expected to be sent to the White House before Congress adjourns for the year. Like its predecessors, this bill is a vehicle for allowing members to demonstrate that they are tough on crime and determined to escalate both rhetoric and penalties in the effort. Things can get pretty ugly in the race to set ever higher prison terms while restricting the rights of the accused and limiting the appeals process, and this year was no exception. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill are rotten, and neither one -- nor any compromise we can see -- ought to be enacted.
Basic to both versions is the belief that if the death penalty is widely applied, crime will be reduced. Dozens of new capital offenses are created, and the right to habeas corpus review in death penalty cases is severely restricted. The House would make convictions easier by allowing the admission of illegally seized evidence so long as the police were acting "in good faith." This is a classic loophole that would do great damage to Fourth Amendment rights. But when it came time to have a real impact on violent crime by controlling the use of semiautomatic assault weapons and ammunition, the House balked. A day after the massacre in Killeen, Tex., members capitulated to the National Rifle Association and voted to remove gun control provisions from the bill. What a disgraceful response to a situation where federal action is really needed and would be truly effective.
The Senate bill is in many respects even worse. The most egregious error on that side was the adoption of a D'Amato amendment, which would make just about every gun murder a federal capital offense. Aside from overriding the decisions of more than a dozen states that do not have a death penalty, this provision -- adopted on the floor without hearings or study -- would throw the federal judicial system into chaos. Federal courts were not created to handle ordinary street crime, and they are ill-equipped and spectacularly understaffed for the task. This provision is typical of the current approach to hot subjects by Congress: If the public is concerned about crimes -- major offenses like murder or even less serious ones like domestic disputes -- that have always been handled in state and local courts, members of Congress want to respond by moving those cases into federal court. They do this without ever considering whether moving a case from one court to another will affect the outcome, whether the federal courts can handle the new burden or even whether the traditional division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states should be changed. This approach is both mindless and mischievous, but members are convinced that this kind of vote makes them look tough. Unfortunately that seems to be the objective of all these now-annual debates, and they have become a truly disgraceful tradition.