Broken Contract

GOP double-speak on block grants


Republicans in the 103rd Congress nearly derailed the 1994 crime bill when they complained about provisions that sanctioned congressional micromanagement of state and local law-enforcement efforts. As examples, Republicans questioned why federal anti-crime dollars should be directed toward such programs as midnight basketball, art instruction for graffiti vandals, or a grant to a college in the district of then-House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.). GOP lawmakers argued that federal dollars should go in "block grants" to state and local governments with few strings attached so that local officials could decide how best to deal with their own law-enforcement problems.

It's a nice sentiment, but the Republicans haven't followed through. The "Taking Back Our Streets" provision of the House Republicans' Contract with America would repeal the "social spending" in the '94 bill. But the provision's "Law Enforcement Block Grants" would in fact hamstring law-enforcement officials.

The block-grant provision permits the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Department of Justice to give as much as $10 billion in federal tax dollars "directly" to local officials under very stringent conditions:

1) The local government must deposit the money in a trust fund.

2) It must spend all of the money within two years of receiving it.

3) It must obey all of the spending regulations that apply to other government funds, along with accounting guidelines that will be developed by the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the comptroller general of the United States.

4) Block-grant spending can be audited by BJA and the comptroller general at any time; either can require detailed reports
on how the money is being spent.

5) The money can only be spent on hiring or training new police officers, paying overtime to existing officers, or buying new law-enforcement equipment.

Allocating the money is complicated as well. Each state will get at least one-quarter of 1 percent of the total funds. In the first year, the rest of the money will be parceled out by formula; the areas with the highest rates of violent crime will get the most money. This formula would apply to grants that are as small as $5,000. So much for cutting strings.

And conceivably, cities and counties would qualify for higher grants when their crime rate went up, not down. Those communities that implemented effective crime-fighting policies would be penalized by the feds.

Just after the election, Newt Gingrich said it would be foolish for Republicans to replace liberal social-engineering programs with conservative ones. The GOP's action on these "block grants" might show if congressional leaders mean what they say.