Keeping COPS forever?

Posted: Apr 23, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Mitch Daniels is an old Washington hand but a rookie budget master. His brief tenure running the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may explain why he is attempting an unprecedented, extremely difficult feat. He wants to eliminate -- as scheduled by law -- a politically popular spending program, in this case Bill Clinton's promise to pay for "100,000 cops" in America's cities. A six-year authorization of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) was enacted in 1994 by the last Democratic-controlled Congress. The individual grants to cities were for three years each, with the cities pledging in writing to retain -- and pay for -- these policemen beyond that time. Whether or not this is a proper or an effective use of federal dollars, legislative history indicates these subsidies were never intended to be permanent. Now, Daniels is trying to disprove the time-tested maxim that no spending program is "temporary" in Washington. That won't be easy. As Congress returns from its Easter recess to launch the annual battle of the budget, Democrats are putting COPS in the front line of its attack on President Bush's spending restraint and tax reduction. Such a role is nothing new for COPS. This program was drenched in politics from its inception with Clinton seeking to erase his party's soft-on-crime stigma that had proved ruinous for a generation. Al From, theoretician of Democratic centrism, in 1994 was predicting perpetuation in power once COPS was passed -- a wildly exaggerated estimate but an accurate reflection of Clinton's grand strategy. "Never again should Washington put politics and party above law and order," Clinton declared in 1994. Nobody is more adept in spinning the current party line than Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic floor leader: "You talk about the Bush budget cutting a program that reduced crime. Time and again, he's going to have to defend this against a tax cut that's frankly unpopular even in his own party." Bush is thus accused of taking police off the street to benefit the rich. The truth is that COPS has already achieved not merely the goal of 100,000 new policemen, but 115,000 (though only 75,000 are on street duty because 40,000 are still in the recruitment-training pipeline). Those manpower totals would not be changed by the Bush budget's decrease of $182 million, which affects only future grants. But the fact that there is no reduction of police on the street will not deter the assault on the budget. "This is not about philosophy, although that's debatable," Daniels told me. "It's not even about program performance, although that is not yet demonstrated. It's about whether even an explicitly term-limited federal program can be allowed to expire, and the dollars reallocated to new needs or different priorities." The philosophy of the federal government paying for extra city policemen surely is debatable. If there is any function of government that is distinctively local, it is paying the wages of police officers. Nor has the performance of COPS been positively demonstrated. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between this program and the decline of violent crime in America. That decline actually started in 1995, two or three years before the new police officers made their presence felt. Violent crime was reduced in communities that did not benefit from COPS as well as those that did get the federal aid. Non-political critics suggest that in some cities, the federal money has funded sophisticated equipment and desk officers rather than cops on the street. But there really is no comprehensive measurement. In over six years, the Republican-controlled Congress has not displayed sufficient curiosity to exercise oversight of this new federal program. A politically popular subsidy that makes friends at home is seldom the object of investigative zeal by either party in Congress. Since 1994, COPS has become in the minds of many Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers just another federal grant program -- not nearly as venerable as spending by the Army Corps of Engineers but becoming almost as sacrosanct. Mitch Daniels, trying to bring the federal budget under a little control, has set a formidable early test for himself. Correction:I apologize to Sen. Robert Byrd for crediting to him in the April 12 column one piece of congressional pork to which he is not entitled: a potato enhancement project in Prosser, Wash., not West Virginia. I misread the state abbreviation from the list of appropriations.