In some respects, the bill the Senate passed in January revising the federal criminal code brought Congress about as close as it ever comes to truly cosmic questions. It was all about crime and punishment: who goes to jail, for how long and for what offenses.
Parts of the proposal remain obscure and technical, to be sure. Others can be understood by everyone. The bill, for example, would attempt to make sure that two men who rob a bank or two men who commit rape, receive at least roughly comparable sentences. Now, one may walk away on probation while the other, before a different judge, gets 10 years.
There are large matters and so to the bill's Senate framers, the scene in Room 2441 of the Rayburn House Office Building last week would have been upsetting.
Members of the House subcommittee working on the legislation sat around an oval table - at least one of them fighting back great yawns - listening to a staffer drone on about Title 18 of the code, about whether a word should be eliminated here or a paragraph there and about whether anyone still cares about the transportation of water hyacinths through interestate commerce (they do).
It was the eleventh day of this process with at least three or four to go before the House version of the criminal code revision arrives at the full Judiciary Committee.
To Senate supporters, who forged a remarkable liberal-conservative coalition to win Senate approval, the subcommittee's activity is one of many sure signs that their bill is doomed. Indeed, there is a general consensus is the House as well that this bill - described by Attorney General Griffin B. Bell as his department's top legislative goal ("nothing is more important than this") - will not be enacted this session of Congress, at least not in anything approaching its present form.
There is also now a belief that the future prospects of the bill are clouded as well.
The Senate bill - managed by Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) would dramatically change the criminal code. By contrast, the House subcommittee is tinkering with it. The Senate version would redefine laws while the House is sim ply rewriting. The difference, said on observer, is the difference between "rebuilding a car engine and tuning it up."
The result, most observers believe, is that even if the revision gets through the House and into a conference committee before the session ends in September, the gap will be too great to reconcile.
On both sides, blood is beginning to boil. Privately, Senate supporters, some of whom labored for seven years on the revision, regard the House approach as the very essence of nit-picking.
"There is simple no way the House is equipped to deal with this," said one Senate observer. "In 12 years, the House never thought anything would happen so they paid no attention. Nothing better symbolizes their institutional indifference as this does."
"What the Senate is saying to us," one House defender responed, "is 'Why don't you just do what your big brothers have done over in the Senate. Why are you (the House) holding it up? Who are you over in the House to questions you elders . . . ' "Our members have spent an enormous amount of time considering this legislation," he continued, and they are very concerned about a great deal of the bill. Maybe two out of 100 senators knew what they were voting on over there."
Publicly, the talk is more genteel. "I think there will be a substantial product" emerging from the House, said Rep. V. Lamar Gudger (D-N.C.) a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice, chaired by Rep. James R. Mann (D-D.C.;
"But to come along and rewrite these statutes after all these years, changing the substantive law of crimes to the extent the Senate wants, may [House members] just don't want to go that far."
"Criminal laws are too important to adopt without knowing what we're doing," agreed Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), also a subcommittee member. "Some people have referred to this bill as telephone book legislation, and I think that's a good characterization."
The Senate version is 700 pages. The House product is expected to consume about 200 pages. That gap neatly symbolizes the disagreements between the two chambers.
There is no argument that the Senate did go far: Its revision represents a redesign and consolidation of more than 3,000 - some laughably obsolete enacted over 200 years and scattered through the code books in a confusing fashion.
The Senate version is more sweeping in its approach to sentencing. It would eliminate a disparate range of penalties that seem at each extreme to bear little relationship to the crime.
It would create a new federal sentencing commission to decide the appropriate punishment for various crimes. Judges would be expected to stick closely to those guidelines or be prepared to explain departures from them.
Parole would be phased out, except in unusual circumstances, and time off for good behavior would be reduced for one-third of a sentence to 10 percent or less.
The Senate version would also redefine thousands of crimes in ways that could have a profound impact on defendants. It would be easier to prove a conspiracy, for example, and obscenity would be defined at the federal level.
While the federal code applies only to federal jurisdiction, the states have often followed Congress' lead in changing criminal law. The impact of a revision such as the Senate advocates would ultimately be massive.
"The Senate," said a critic in the House, "wipe the slate clean and started fresh." The House subcommittee it leaving substantively untouched large protions of the criminal code. Where the Senate redefined crimes, the House is rearranging, shifting things from one place to another.
The House is moving towards a drastically toned down version of the Senate's approach to sentencing. Instead of phasing out the parole system, the House bill would leave it intact.
The House version, too, would create a sentencing commission to recommend punishments for particular crimes, but unlike the Senate, the recommendation would be little more than that - just suggestions.
Members like Holtzman say that are doing what they are doing because the Senate bill is flawed. "There is an enormous increase in federal jurisdiction. Many times we found there was no explanation for what the Senate had done.
"And their bill had 300 pages of technical and conforming amendments that were not the least bit technical and conforming. If you ask the Justice Department to explain them, they can't," she said.
Holtzman and the rest of the House committee reject suggestions - made privately by some Senate backers and more openly in various newspaper editorials - that they quickly approve what the Senate passed to avoiding the risk that now looms - death by the clock.
"House members take the same oath as senators do," House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) wrote to The New York Time last month," and they are entitled to exercise their own independent judgement. To date, that judgment has been that the Senate bill requires more than mere ratification."