The House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved, for the first time, a bill to revamp the entire federal criminal code.
A sharply different version of the bill passed the Senate a year ago and is pending there again. Until now the House has rejected effort to attempt an overhaul of the nation's federal criminal laws in one massive bill.
The action yesterday was a triumph for Rep. Robert R. Drinan (D-Mass.), chairman of the criminal justice subcommittee, which held 47 meetings in the last year and a half to write the bill. The Jesuit priest is leaving Congress at the end of this session because Pope John Paul II has said that priests may not hold elective or appointive office, and the bill is seen by many as his memorial.
Drinan said yesterday that he will push for quick floor action after the July 4 recess, hopefully with a restriction on controversial amendments.
Efforts to attach a death-penalty provision to the code were defeated overwhelmingly in committee twice, but a sample of possible theatrics on the floor was evident yesterday when Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-ILL.) offered an amendment to reinstate the Logan Act to prosecute private individuals who interfere with U.S. foreign policy.
The act has never been used, is widely considered unconstitutional, and was dropped in the draft bill. But Hyde and others cited the conduct of former attorney general Ramsey Clark on his recent trip to Iran as reason for reinstating the law. Hyde's amendment passed, 18 to 12, after a similar effort last week failed, 16 to 15.
John Shattuck, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, said yesterday that his group opposes the House committee's bill even though the ACLU considers it far superior to the Senate version.
The House bill "contains a number of threats to civil liberties and we are not pleased with the prospects of taking it to the floor or conference with the Senate," Shattuck said.
The Senate bill has been criticized by the ACLU for tilting too far toward law-enforcement wishes. The Justice Department lobbied strenuously to bring the House bill in line with the Senate version.
Roger Pauley, a department attorney who monitored the process, said department officials are concerned about what they consider restrictions in the House bill on federal efforts to combat public corruption. A loose definition of bribery would create loopholes, he said, and another requirement would force the department to forgo prosecutions of many state and local officials.
The revision of the criminal code was recommended by a federal commission in the mid-1960s, but early Senate drafts sponsored by Sens. John McClellan (D-Ark.) and Roman Hruska (R-Neb.) were labeled draconian by many groups.
The aim of the revision is to simplify and clarify conflicting federal statutes covering criminal violations. For instance, the House bill pares 80 theft statues down to one and 130 counterfeiting and forgery laws to two.
It would set up sentencing guidelines for judges to follow in the hope of narrowing widely disparate penalities for the same offense. It would allow defendants -- but not the government -- to appeal sentences. In a major difference, the Senate version would allow the government to make such appeals.
The House Bill which would go into effect three years after passage, would phase out paroles in five years. The Senate bill would abolish them immediately.
In another sharp difference, the Senate bill would allow "preventive detention" of prisoners. The House bill would not.
Proponents of the latter note that their version would simply recodify many areas of the law, while the Senate bill would make major changes in many more statutes.