Block-Grant Blunder

DELIRIOUS House Republicans have blindly passed a bill that transmutes the bipartisan crime-fighting law enacted last year into a delectable $10 billion chunk of federal pork. Now Senate Republicans, like sober-minded older brothers, have a chance to cast a cold eye on it and rework it into sensible legislation that has a chance of not being vetoed by President Clinton.

House Republicans get the conservative mantra half right when they call for moving more decisions to the state and local level. This echoes advice in the business world -- from W. Edwards Deming and many others -- that says the guy on the shop floor knows best what will work and what won't. No one argues the common sense, or the proved effectiveness, of the concept.

(But keep in mind one caveat: Even many top business leaders dispute the axiom that what works in the private sector always works in government.)

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The real mistake of this block-grant plan lies in separating the fund-raiser (the federal government) from the spender (local government). A consistent conservative position would be to get the federal government out of local crime-fighting altogether, leaving states and municipalities to raise and spend their own crime-fighting funds as they see fit.

That is an honest position. It concedes that crime is a mostly local problem. But if you're in Congress, it could make you look unwilling to help and thus ''soft on crime.''

The $10 billion block grant passed by the House Tuesday has insufficient safeguards against abuse by local officials. One has only to recall the bad old days of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration block grants in the 1970s to find examples of how local officials can misspend public funds just as easily as Congress. If it's money Congress has collected from the people, we ask, doesn't Congress have an obligation to see that it is spent wisely?

The current crime law contains seed money directed toward putting more police in communities. It unabashedly directs funds toward that effort. It sees more cops as valuable whether they're on the streets of St. Louis, Cincinnati, or San Francisco.

If Americans have any kind of national consensus on crime-fighting, more police surely is part of it. The Senate ought to rework the hopeless House bill until it addresses this goal, or abandon the effort and let the current law stand.

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