Right now, House and Senate negotiators are trying to hammer out the differences in their competing budgets. Among the major bones of contention: disagreements over how deeply to cut Medicaid; whether to make President Bush's expiring first-term tax cuts permanent; and whether to go along with the president's proposal to slash funding for a wide range of programs related to homeland security.
No, President Bush is not gutting the Department of Homeland Security. The problem is Bush's definition of homeland security. Apparently, it doesn't include things like the safety of our streets. Especially the streets of our inner cities, which have become war zones.
After plummeting during the 1990s, gang violence is making a bloody comeback all across America, with gang-related homicides up 50 percent since 1999. According to Justice Department estimates, there are about 21,500 gangs nationwide, with over 730,000 members. And these gangs are no longer confined to Los Angeles and New York. Cities like Denver, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City and Tulsa, Okla., have all seen dramatic surges in gang-related criminal activity.
And how has our tough-on-security president responded? By proposing to cut close to a billion dollars from programs designed to help anti-gang efforts. His 2006 budget would cut more than $412 million from education, after-school and family-support programs that help keep at-risk kids away from gangs. It would eliminate Juvenile Accountability Block Grants ($54 million worth) designed to help prosecutors deal with gang issues. It would also reduce funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program by 95 percent, which could result in as many as 88,000 fewer police officers patrolling America's mean streets. And these proposed cuts come on top of a 44 percent reduction in delinquency-fighting and anti-gang funding since 2002.
"The federal budget is more than mere numbers, it is an accounting of our country's priorities," says Seattle Chief of Police Gil Kerlikowske, chairman of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a bipartisan anti-crime organization of more than 2,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and crime victims. "The president's budget just doesn't add up for children and instead makes the wrong choices on crime prevention."
But wait, could this possibly be the same president who during his State of the Union address so preeningly patted himself on the back for his commitment to dealing with gang violence?
Of course. It's the kind of political sleight of hand his presidency is built on. First, Bush earned P.R. points for earmarking $50 million a year for the next three years to a new, still-to-be-defined anti-gang initiative, then turned around and submitted a budget that cuts nearly 20 times that much from programs already proven effective in keeping young people out of gangs. Not exactly a fair tradeoff for America's at-risk kids.
Oh, and here's the kicker: The new initiative is to be overseen by first lady Laura Bush. I don't know about you, but the idea of Laura the Librarian bringing the Crips, the Bloods and MS-13 to their knees doesn't exactly make me feel any safer.
The first lady's new role as gang czar seems like another Mission to Mars in the making -- a highly touted project long on potential photo ops and woefully short on specifics. Here's what we do know about Mrs. Bush's feel-good initiative: The program won't be administered through the law enforcement professionals at the Justice Department. Instead, the limited dollars will be funneled through the president's compassion fund and doled out to his favored faith-based groups. Who knows, maybe they'll serve up the gang prevention entree with a side order of moral values. I can hear the ad campaign now: "Just Say No to Drive-Bys and Turf Wars. And Premarital Sex, While You're at It."
President Bush and his Republican buddies are quick to talk tough on issues of law and order and just as quick to cut the kinds of proven programs that help alleviate the social disorder that so often leads to criminal activity. There seems to be plenty of money for new cops to patrol the streets of Baghdad, but very little for those protecting America's inner cities. Indeed, the $150 million Bush has pledged to spend on his national anti-violence proposal over the next three years is about what we're spending in Iraq -- every single day.
What is it going to take before the president gets serious about protecting America's inner cities? Maybe community leaders can hire Ahmed Chalabi to tell the CIA that the Crips and the Bloods are looking to get their hands on some WMD.
If you could distill the Bush administration down to a single thing, it would be this: a complete inability -- indeed a pathological aversion -- to changing course, even when the current course is taking us over a cliff.
After seeing the young Bruce Springsteen in concert, rock critic Jon Landau famously wrote: "I have seen the future of rock 'n' roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
Well, I've just had a Springsteen moment. After spending some