Drug bills vs. people's rights. Civil libertarians urge Congress to take its time
Proposals aimed at dealing with America's national drug problem are flying around Capitol Hill thicker than gnats at a Fourth of July picnic. Several House committees and task forces on both sides of the Hill are scurrying to enact major drug legislation in the waning preconvention days of this Congress.
Civil libertarians note that the process is extraordinary. Few public hearings on the final bills are being held with none at all anticipated on the Senate side. The result, they warn, may be ill-considered proposals, voted on without anyone really knowing what they contain, and which violate civil liberties without solving fundamental problems.
``When confronting a problem like drugs, which doesn't have an easy solution,'' warns Leslie Harris, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ``the easy answer is to adopt draconian measures.''
She ticks off several of what she calls ill-conceived proposals coming before various committees and task forces. Included are so-called ``yuppie penalties'' to prevent drug users from getting federal funds, sharp restrictions on habeas corpus rights intended to guard against false imprisonment, and the advocating of the death penalty for drug lords. As these and other provisions now are being discussed, ACLU officials say, they would have serious unintended effects on people other than intended victims, and would violate fundamental rights of many Americans.
The ACLU holds, for example, that the ``yuppies penalties'' would apply primarily to the poor and minorities, proposed habeas corpus restrictions would violate constitutional rights, and the death-penalty provisions being discussed would permit capital punishment to be meted out in states that opposed it and against people who were not drug kingpins.
Then why is this happening? Because, charges Morton Halperin, Congress ``must seem to be doing something about drugs before [it] goes home for election.'' Polls show the public considers drugs the first or second most serious problem in America, says Mr. Halperin, director of the ACLU's Washington office.
A similar antidrug whirlwind blew through Washington before the 1986 election, with Senate and House members fighting a last-minute pitched battle over some provisions. Halperin sees a virtual repeat: Baseball personality ``Yogi Berra had it right when he said it was d'ej`a vu all over again.''
This year, as the calendar flips from June to July, several House committees are wrapping up proposals on various aspects of a broad drug proposal - mostly ``without hearings,'' Halperin charges. These elements are to be reported to House majority leader Thomas Foley, who is to craft them into one broad House Democratic bill, which then is to go directly to the House floor without hearings. House Republicans have their own proposal.
In the Senate, a task force of somewhat more than a dozen Democratic senators is believed to be drafting a broad proposal in private. A similar task force of Republicans is said to be working on its own proposal. Few details are known about either task force.
This process, Halperin says, is fundamentally flawed and contrary to Congress's normal procedure of careful hearings on important issues. He calls on congressional leaders to permit a substantial pause after the final bills are drafted and before Senate and House votes, so members of Congress, and the public, can discover what the effects of the proposals likely would be.