BELIEVE IT OR NOT, the Founding Fathers were responsible for President Clinton's loss on the crime bill last week.
So says Clinton, and as everyone knows, he cannot tell a lie. The 225-210 vote that blocked the bill in the House of Representatives, the president observed the other day, is proof that "there's something wrong with the American system of government." Especially since people had "asked the Congress nicely" to do something about violence.
Imagine. Spurning the bill after people had asked "nicely." What is this country coming to?
The "American system of government" wasn't Clinton's first scapegoat. His immediate reaction was to blame "a procedural trick orchestrated by the National Rifle Association." (The "trick," it seems, lay in convincing congressmen that taking guns away from honest people won't do much to stop crime.) Then he bashed the Republican Party, even though 58 of those who voted no -- more than one-fourth the total -- were Democrats.
Next he indicted the very tides of history for thwarting his wishes. ("We're moving to a new era. It has not been defined. Every time this happens, the American people become vulnerable.") Then he condemned "the American system of government."
Facing such impressive opposition, Clinton must find it reassuring that God Almighty supports the bill. Preaching at the Full Gospel AME Zion Church in Maryland on Sunday, the president urged the congregation "to pray for members of Congress" to "come back and do the will of God" by passing the $33 billion measure. So that's what they mean by "bully pulpit."
Did God really endorse HR-3355? In its entirety? Including the $ 270 million that the secretary of education is to dole out to "family and community endeavor schools," which are allowed to spend the funds on arts and crafts, dances, and cultural programs, but which "may not use such funds to provide religious worship or instruction"? How broad-minded of Him.
And how . . . flexible . . . of Clinton to reveal that it is God's will that this lard-laced legislation be enacted. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that Clinton was attacking conservative Christians for mixing religion with their politics.
"I do not believe people should be criticized for their religious convictions," our preacher-in-chief said in a radio interview on June 24. "But neither do I believe that people can put on the mantle of religion and then justify anything they say or do." There may be a limit to Clinton's hypocrisy, but it obviously hasn't been reached yet.
Not that he's the only hypocrite here.
Senator Ted Kennedy thundered that the House vote last week marked "a day of infamy for our democracy." Infamy? Read on.
Kennedy voted for the crime bill last November, when it came to the Senate floor. The Senate version contained four notably tough measures: (1) severe federal penalties for violent juvenile gang crimes; (2) mandatory minimum sentences for anyone convicted of using a gun to commit a crime; (3) mandatory minimum sentences for selling drugs to minors or recruiting minors to commit drug crimes; and (4) a provision to try juvenile rapists and murderers as adults.
The Senate did more than include these anticrime components in its bill. It also voted specifically to instruct the Senate's representatives not to bargain them away in conference committee, where the competing House and Senate versions of the bill would be reconciled. Kennedy was named to the conference committee -- and promptly flouted the Senate's instructions. He voted to delete the first three measures and sharply weaken the fourth. In each case, his vote was the deciding one.
It would be interesting to hear Kennedy explain those votes. It would also be interesting to hear him explain the conference committee's odd arithmetic. The Senate passed a bill with a $22 billion price tag. The House version cost $28 billion. Yet when the House and Senate conferees finished working out their differences, the bill rang up at $33.2 billion.
Clintonian rhetoric notwithstanding, this is not "the toughest, largest, smartest federal attack on crime in the history of our country." It does not require 1,400 pages of new laws to fight crime. It does not require jacking up spending by $9 billion (per year) on social welfare programs to fight crime. Or government-formed "midnight basketball" leagues in neighborhoods with specified ratios of pregnancy, AIDS, and drug addiction. Or yet another "job training" boondoggle. Or the creation of a Missing Alzheimer's Disease Patient Alert Program.
Last week's vote to derail the crime bill may have embarrassed Clinton and the barons who rule Congress. But it was no loss to anyone who lives in the real America, where real crimes victimize real people.
The more Americans learn about this bloated bill, the more they turn against it. Some jelly-kneed Republicans are now scared that there will be hell to pay politically unless they "compromise" with the White House and vote for the bill after all. They fear a bogeyman. In a nationwide poll taken last week, 55 percent said Congress should scrap this bill, wait until next year, and pass a better one.
Sound advice. The president may have his own direct line to God, but House members -- especially Republicans who claim to be clear-headed fiscal conservatives -- ought to heed a more immediate authority: the voters who will be deciding their future this November.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)