Look to '94 crime bill to solve budget crisis

Reminiscent of today's deficit fight, Washington simply bickered about crime throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when crime hovered near the top of the public agenda. Conservatives and liberals, subscribing to seemingly incompatible visions of how to stem the tide, were stuck. Democrats focused on the causes of crime and were loathe to support any bill that neglected to sweep guns off America’s streets. Republicans, averse even to limiting the right of anyone to own military-style weapons, wanted simply to stiffen sentences. And Republicans found a dynamite issue to run on - accusing Democrats of being criminal coddlers and raising the specter of Willie Horton, a convict on furlough in Massachusetts who raped a woman, coming to your neighborhood if Democrats controlled the White House.

In 1994, spurred by new thinking in the world of criminal justice, President Clinton, then-Senator Joe Biden, and then-Congressman Chuck Schumer proposed the COPS program as the centerpiece of a large package that threw the kitchen sink at crime. Republicans scoffed at the bill as too expensive and untested. In truth, the political benefit of the crime issue was probably too tempting to give up to a practical solution.

But, ultimately, Clinton refused to buckle and through intense negotiations with Republican House member Henry Hyde, Democrats and Republicans came together on a bill that both pleased and angered both sides. Democrats got 100,000 new cops-on-the-beat for local communities, the assault weapons ban, and domestic violence prevention. Republicans got tougher sentencing and the construction of new prisons.

It worked. In the 15 years that followed the Clinton crime bill, 95,000 fewer Americans were murdered, 140,000 fewer women were raped, and 5 million fewer cars were stolen than what would have been had the 1994 crime rates remained constant.

Now we are once again caught in an eddy of gridlock, this time over the budget. Like crime in the 1990s, the deficit is fast becoming the overriding political issue. With the Ryan budget and Medicare vouchers, Republicans are facing their own Willie Horton moment - a crystallizing action that Democrats can use turn voters away. And like crime, each party is tempted to retreat to its own ideological corner: Pentagon cuts and tax increases for Democrats; entitlement cuts, spending freezes, and no new taxes for Republicans.

The pivot in the crime debate occurred when both sides finally believed that doing nothing outweighed the political consequences of doing something. With the debt ceiling looming, we may be at that point on the budget. But to make it stick - just like the crime bill - each side has to put everything on the table. Washington must accede to a We give/You give approach.

Miracles don't happen in Washington, so here's how it could work: Republicans soften their pledge on taxes to allow only tax expenditures and loopholes into the mix; Democrats accept that some Medicare and Medicaid savings must be delivered so long as the structure of each program remains as is. A We give/You give approach allows each side to claim a victory while also taking steps to solve the most pressing long-term economic problem facing the nation.

Once again, Joe Biden, this time as Vice President is in the middle of negotiations, and like the crime bill of the 1990s, President Obama has set the table - challenging his own party’s orthodoxy, this time by putting entitlements on the table.

Americans rarely give government credit for anything, but the story of how crime came down after the 1994 deal is a true success story. In the instances where they get it right, we ought to look at it as a model for how to get the big things done.  

Jim Kessler is Vice President of Third Way and formerly served as legislative director for then-Congressman Charles Schumer.

[1] From the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, between 1994 and 2009, murders decreased by 34.7 percent (23,330 to 15,241), aggravated assaults by 27.5 percent (1,113,180 to 806,843), and vehicle thefts by 48.4 percent (1,539,300 to 794,616).

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