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Legislators at Play


Have a care, criminals. Congress' crime bill contains severities such as these:

Regarding "midnight sports leagues," which have done nicely without federal supervision, the government shall make grants to leagues in which "not less than 50 percent of the players" are "residents of federally assisted low-income housing" and which serve neighborhoods or communities whose populations have "not less than two percent" of various characteristics, such as "a high incidence of persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus."

There shall be an "interagency Task Force to be known as the Ounce of Prevention Council," chaired by the attorney general and including the secretaries of housing and urban development, health and human services, labor, agriculture and interior and the drug czar. It shall spend millions on this and that, including arts, crafts and dance programs.

There shall be "partnerships" between law-enforcement agencies and groups providing "child and family services." The partnerships' many functions shall include training police "regarding behavior, psychology, family systems and community culture and attitudes" that are "relevant to dealing with" children who are or might become violent.

The attorney general shall make grants to organizations dealing with "delinquent and at-risk youth" through programs designed to do many things, including "increase the self-esteem" of such youth. Drug dealers may be led into new lines of work by grants funding "mediation and other conflict-resolution methods, treatment, counseling, educational and recreational programs that create alternatives to criminal activity."

And so the crime bill goes, through hundreds of pages and billions of dollars -- more than $30 billion over six years. This bill is probably not the worst legislation Congress has ever cobbled together from trendy intellectual fads and traditional pork. But it is so bad that some sensible representatives and senators will vote against it for the right reasons, which include respect for federalism -- and for the public's intelligence.

Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says that a year after a Republican filibuster stopped the president's $16 billion "stimulus" package, the crime bill is "the largest urban cash program to come through Congress since Richard Nixon invented revenue sharing." But of course it is not just urban cash.

Legislators representing rural areas could not allow such a gravy

train to roll through the countryside without strewing cash along the way. Hence there is "Title XXV -- Rural Crime." And Washington accepts a new challenge: "Subtitle B -- Drug Free Truck Stops and Safety Rest Areas."

This crime bill is a bipartisan boondoggle because of the cachet that currently accrues to any legislation with an "anti-crime" label.

But the bill sprays money most promiscuously at Democratic constituencies, the so-called (by themselves) "caring professions" -- social workers, psychologists and others who do the work of therapeutic government.

To help with the grandstanding about "toughness," the bill creates scores of new federal death-penalty crimes. But it also contains the "Racial Justice Act" -- designed to end capital punishment. It would do so by allowing appeals based on statistical showings of racial disparities in capital punishment, appeals that would put immobilizing sand in the gears of the government's prosecutorial machinery.

The "Violence Against Women Act" genuflects at every altar in the feminist church. For example, it funds "gender sensitivity" training for judges. And the federal government is going to matriculate: It is off to college to conduct a "campus sexual-assault study," a monument to the feminist fiction that in a world infested with predatory males, women students risk life and limb just walking from dorms to libraries, not to mention the terrors of dating.

The current faith is that the sovereign remedy for what ails the nation is yet another crime bill that further federalizes what properly is a state and local responsibility -- keeping people safe. Few politicians pause to wonder about the wisdom of piling federal punishments on acts already heavily punished by state laws.

This accelerating trend contributes to the collapse of self-government as communities slough off responsibilities, even for hiring police and building prisons, onto a distant federal government. And the suggestion that the federal government can produce safe streets accelerates the evaporation of the federal government's prestige because the results will mock the expectations so improvidently raised.

Supposedly "ambitious" bills like the crime bill actually are acts of legislative laziness, a slothful refusal to think and discriminate concerning federal responsibilities and competencies. The crowning irony is that the crime bill will increase contempt for law -- and lawmakers.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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