The House, responding to a barrage of criticism from national drug policy director William J. Bennett, yesterday voted to restore $231 million in anti-drug treatment and prevention funds eliminated last week by the Appropriations Committee.
But the amendment to restore the money, ordered by the Democratic leadership, was adopted only after several House members took the floor to attack Bennett for what one called his "reckless" remarks. Instead of quietly contacting members to voice his objections, they charged, the drug policy director had called up the news media and made insulting comments.
"Bill Bennett has lost his effectiveness on the Hill," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics. "He feels far more comfortable talking to reporters than trying to work out differences with the Congress . . . What right does Bill Bennett have to bring partisanship to such a sensitive national security issue as this?"
Bennett was traveling in Montana and Colorado yesterday. In a statement released by his office, he said he regretted the "rancor this has caused" but contended that his blunt tactics had succeeded in preventing up to 100,000 drug abusers from losing access to treatment programs.
"I know Democrats are upset. I know some Republicans are upset," Bennett said. "But we needed this money. We were taken completely by surprise on these cuts and raising a ruckus seemed the only way to get the money back."
The action came during yesterday's debate on a $170 billion funding bill for the departments of labor, education and health and human services, which the House passed on a vote of 359 to 58. The funding reversal illustrated the extent to which Bennett had put the House leadership in a political box, some Democratic staff members conceded.
For nearly a year, Democrats have sharply criticized the Bush administration's drug strategy for placing too much emphasis on tougher law enforcement rather than treatment and prevention programs that could reduce the demand for drugs.
But without debate last Thursday, the Appropriations Committee slashed Bush's budget proposals for increases in four key anti-drug treatment, education and prevention programs, including a $100 million increase slated for the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA) block grant program, the main vehicle for funding drug treatment programs run by the states.
Bennett responded by calling reporters and denouncing the House action as "cheap, dishonest and sneaky" and "more damn political crap from the Congress." At a morning whip meeting, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and other leaders agreed the anti-drug money had to be restored even though the subcommittee that made the cuts, chaired by Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Tenn.), had concluded that up to three-fourths of this year's ADAMHA block grants had not yet been spent.
"In part, this is not just about reality, it's about perception," said one leadership aide. "With drugs being as big an issue as it is, they couldn't leave the impression that it was being shortchanged."
In an unusual move, Natcher and Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.), the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, jointly offered the amendment reversing the action of their own panel. But one panel member, Rep. Joseph D. Early (D-Mass.), angrily protested. "All we're doing is throwing money" away because "we've got a political problem," he said.