THE CRIME bill whose enactment the administration celebrated with such effusive ceremony the other day was barely good enough to sign. The ceremony was like the bill itself, an effort to use a deadly issue as a political prop. The street crime that people rightly fear, which has made crime a major political issue, falls mainly within state and local jurisdiction. The federal government has only peripherally to do with fighting it.
That hasn't stopped the federal politicians from pretending to take action. The pretense is bipartisan. It hasn't mattered who was president; both parties have indulged in it for years. The present bill imposes the death penalty for all kinds of federal crimes that almost no one ever commits. We think the death penalty is wrong. Here at least it has the virtue of being largely fake.
The bill also includes a ban on assault weapons. They ought to be banned -- it's ridiculous that the banning should even be an issue -- but no one should have any illusions about what was accomplished. Assault weapons play a part in only a small percentage of crime. The provision is mainly symbolic; its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control.
The bill provides $30 billion in funds as well, which sounds like more than it is, because the money is spread over six years. About a third of the total is to be used to help states and localities hire more policemen. That's probably not a bad use of federal funds, provided the state and local governments have the matching money to pay their share. Another third would help build prisons, also an activity the federal government can usefully undertake. The remainder is for prevention programs, some of which will perhaps be useful and others of which will deserve the label of pork that resisting Republicans tried to attach to the entire bill.
The administration likes the crime bill because it appropriates and neutralizes a traditional Republican issue and because it's an accomplishment -- a bill that the president supported and Congress passed. Fair enough, but there is far less to this bill that the president signed with such a flourish than met the ear.