Policy, Not Pandering

"RUSHING to sign up for the war on drugs before next month's election," was how The Washington Post cynically characterized the Senate's overwhelming approval of an anti-drug measure last week.

On its Saturday editorial page, The New York Times chimed in with the prevailing view of this new legislation as a sham bill designed to bolster senators' prospects for re-election. "The 100th Congress appears determined not to leave town without serving up a tough-sounding bill on drugs," The Times editorial intoned. The good, gray Times went on to denounce the new drug bill as "one that flashes empty promises under campaign pressure."

The new bill, which passed through the Senate by an 87-3 vote, would create the oft-discussed cabinet-level position of drug "czar." It would also allow the death penalty against drug "kingpins," stregnthen penalties for both the use and sale of illicit drugs, and permit random testing for transportation and nuclear-industry workers.

Such legislation did carry certain political advantages, as even legislators had to admit. "Just to grow hair on your chest here on the Senate floor so you can...tell everybody how tough you are on drugs is no solution." said Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) But Bumpers ended up supporting the anti-drug legislation, not because he was a hypocrite but because he realized that the new bill, despite its political overtones, was a step in the right direction.

Although most public criticism has been focused on the inclusion of the death penalty, what's forgotten is that the new bill also authorizes major new expenditures for education, treatment, rehabilitation and law enforcement efforts. The bill's attack of the drug problem from both the demand side and the supply side represents a long-awaited, comprehensive national policy to attack the drug problem.

CONGRESS has drafted this new piece of legislation in response to public pressure that demands action on the drug crisis. Yet "responding to public pressure" does not in itself mean that congressmen are cynically using an issue as a tool to win votes. And to snidely proclaim, as the press does, that any congressional action during an election year is inherently mere political pandering makes little sense.

By that logic, the ongoing work on comprehensive welfare reform or the passage of the Tax Reform Act, two of the more substantial and far-reaching pieces of domestic legislation in recent years, were simply means for calculating congressmen to ensure themselves a return ticket to Capitol Hill.

The Tax Reform Act closed loopholes for the rich created by the 1981 Reagan tax cut and took millions of Americans living in poverty off the taxpaying rolls. The welfare reform legislation would provide direction to a system that liberals and conservatives alike agree is in dire need of repair. If that's mere politicking, so be it.

As for the new anti-drug bill, how does The Times or The Post explain the support from the nearly 60 senators who are not up for re-election next month or the incumbents who are virtual locks come November.

And who's to say that responding to the concerns of one's constituents, whether it pertain to obtaining "pork barrel" funds for a particular local project, providing shelter for the homeless, or ridding the neighborhood of the drugs that are daily being sold on its street corner, is pandering?

TWO years after the deaths of such prominent athletes as Len Bias and Don Rogers and at a time when inner city neighborhoods are being ravaged by drug-related violence, Congress should not be hesitant in attempting to come up with a tough national policy regarding drug use.

Instead of passing this timely piece of legislation, should Congressmen instead go back to their districts and tell voters, "Sorry, we decided not to try to crack down on drug abuse because we thought it would prejudice you in our favor. In the meantime, just say no?"

One can disagree, as several legislators did, with the efficacy of provisions allowing the death penalty or cutting off student aid and other federal benefits to those convicted of drug use. But congressional attempts to move the much-ballyhooed "war on drugs" from rhetoric to a coherent policy should be encouraged, not ridiculed. To immediately denounce such attempts as election-year pandering only serves to undermine an important piece of legislation that should instead be debated on its merits.