Administration officials and congressional Democrats are jockeying for position on an issue both sides see a political winner: a new federal program to combat crime.
They're doing it even though only 6 percent of crime under federal control.
Sen. Howell Helfin (D-Ala.) took note of this contradiction between rhetoric and statistical reality when Senate Democrats laid out their new crime program in June. Since 94 percent of all crimes is committed in state and local jurisdictions, "we are basically having an opening salvo here that addresses the 6 percent," he said.
Many experts agree there is not much the federal government can do about street crime. But it is an issue that Americans rank right after inflation as a national concern, so the politics of crime is simmering this summer. Strategists in both parties are figuring how they can grab the spotlight and the credit on a "can't-miss" legislative and campaign issue.
Attorney General William French Smith, and White House officials already have discussed the possibility of a fall offensive on crime, including a speech or personal message by the president, aides said. White House officials say a new "war on crime" is high on the list of possible initiatives behind the Reagan budget and tax programs.
The administration's attack on crime would include legislative recommendations from Smith's current task force on violent crime, a renewed effort to reform the antiquated federal criminal code, and perhaps some initiatives on the drug problem, including a Cabinet committee on narcotics enforcement.
Fearing they were being outflanked on an issue several had pushed in the past, Senate Democrats tried to reassert themselves. They announced that they will try to tack anti-crime amendments onto the pending Justice Department authorization bill when the busing filibuster is resolved after the August recess. The proposals range from a new Cabinet-level drug enforcement czar to a series of bail and sentencing reforms that have been part of previous criminal code bills. Especially volatile issues like gun control were neatly sidestepped.
The Democrats came up with a zippy title, the National Security and Violent Crime Amendments of 1981, but got very little coverage because the caucus deliberations were so secret there was no advance notice of their announcement. "The 4 o'clock folies" was how one Senate aide described the June 18 press conference.
Others say that liberal Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Joseph R. Biden (Del.) pressed the issue because they felt left out after 13 moderate and conservative Democrats went to Reagan a month earlier asking that he make some move on crime.
Heflin followed up the news conference with a sense-of-tbe-Senate resolution declaring a government attack on crime a national priority, a proposal that attracted supporters like a testimonial to motherhood and apple pie. Thirteen senator took the floor to denounce crime before the resolution was passed, 95 to 0. Their speeches filled 18 pages in the Congressional Record.
A Democratic Senate aide insisted his bosses are not grandstanding on the issue. "We're not playing games. We're trying to focus the debate. Take drugs, for instance. That's something that has a tremendous effect on the other 94 percent, the local and state crime. And it's a problem the feds can do something about. Our package is realistic. It's the Republican proposals on the death penalty and the like that are window dressing."
A Republican aid scoffed at the timing of the Democrats' effort, calling the proposed loading-up of the Justice authorization bill "an unseemly way to legislate." But he alsosaw it as "an incredible windfall for the Republicans. They're gone on record for issues conservatives have tried to promote for years. It's almost a blank check."
A staffer at the American Bar Association also expressed concern about the Democratic package because no hearings have been held on many of the proposals. "There's a lot of politics being played on this issue," the aide said.
The amendment include a form of preventive detention, mandatory sentences for use of a weapon in a crime, abolition of parole, a mandatory life sentence for attempted assassination of a president, and expanded federal jurisdiction over juveniles who commit felonies.
John Shattuck, director of the American Civil Liberties Union office in Washington, said in an interview that he is bothered by the tone of the developing debate. "There's an effort being made to find quick, not very thoughtful, solutions to the very deep problems of violent crime. It's an issue that lends itself to demagoguery. . . We're as concerned about crime as Ed Meese is. We just have a little more balanced aproach."
Presidential counselor Meese caused a controversy recently by calling the ACLU part of a criminals' lobby because of its concern for the rights of defendants and prisoners. He is a key supporter of stricter law enforcement, and is expected to play an important role in determing how hard the administration will push any crime package.
Smith's violent-crime task force is scheduled to make its final recommendation in mid-August, and a study of how to improve federal drug enforcement is due about Labor Day. Thus the timing would be right for a major initiative in the fall.
Administration officials feel they also have a potent political weapon in the oft-debated criminal code. It has passed the Senate before with bipartisan support and can be brought up again there on short notice. Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-NJ.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has pledged his support to the code, but it is now lodged in the subcommittee of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who never has shown enthusiasm for the code as a comprehensive package.
"It should be fairly easy to pass the code in the Senate early next year and then point fingers at the Democrats in the House, in an election year, for holding up a tool in the fight on crime," a GOP strategist said.