The budget debate between President Clinton and Congress is about a lot more than the current level of federal spending and whether or not taxes should be raised. It's about who should be responsible for addressing America's social problems. For example, who should take care of America's drug problems?
President Clinton wants Washington -- Congress, federal bureaucrats, federal judges -- in charge. The congressional leadership argues that big government has failed to address America's human needs. They want to return responsibility to where it has historically rested -- with families, neighborhoods, communities, churches and synagogues, and state and local governments.
The president's position was illustrated when he threw down the gauntlet in his State of the Union address: "I challenge Congress not to cut out support for drug-free schools." Clinton was referring to June 1995, when he vetoed legislation to limit the Department of Education's "Drug-Free Schools and Communities" program. With teenage drug use rising rapidly since 1992, the president has calculated that Congress can't successfully oppose anti-drug programs for America's youth. But this completely ignores the question of who is responsible for taking action.
Because the congressional leadership believes the federal government should let communities tackle their own problems, it voted last year to cut the $465-million budget for Clinton's anti-drug program by 60 percent. With cameras rolling, Clinton vetoed the bill in the Rose Garden and called Republicans "extremists" opposed to drug education. In other words, as far as the president is concerned, Congress' opposition to federal anti-drug programs equals opposition to doing anything about the teen drug problem.
Of course, no one doubts the importance of reducing illegal drug use. And the federal government has important responsibilities, including bringing international drug traffickers to justice, stopping interstate commerce in illegal substances, and cracking down on money-laundering schemes.
But teaching children that drug use is wrong and harmful is primarily the responsibility of parents and local communities -- youth organizations, religious institutions, schools and police. Federal funding is neither necessary nor sufficient for conveying this very personal message to children on a consistent basis.
Moreover, the program in question provides just $7.25 per pupil each year. By the time this money makes its way through the various state and local bureaucracies, many schools receive less than $3 per student. The president suggests that all those parents and teachers who seek to dissuade young people from using illegal drugs will cease to do so without a federal subsidy of $3 a child.
The Drug-Free Schools program began in 1987 during the Reagan administration's expansion of the war on drugs. Our nation's leaders were particularly anxious to contain the explosion in crack addiction. Later, it became clear that crack use had peaked in 1985 and then declined rapidly -- proving that efforts on the part of parents and communities were working long before any federal program tried to help them.
Yet, the federal government increased funding for Drug-Free Schools from $200 million in 1987 to more than $624 million in 1992, paying little attention to what was happening to the money. Meanwhile, according to former Michigan drug czar Robert Peterson, "The health-education lobby misled educators into believing that drugs only pose another personal health choice. In doing so, federal drug funds underwrote controversial sex-education expansion and condom giveaways and enriched health-education consultants."
Before Michigan Gov. John Engler stopped it, $32 million in anti-drug funds was diverted to the Michigan Model for Comprehensive School Health. More than $81,000 was used to purchase giant plastic teeth and toothbrushes. Kids who brush, said the "experts," do not use drugs. Another $1.5 million was spent on models of the human torso used just one time. In Washington, D.C., a school used federal anti-drug money to take its basketball team to a restaurant. And according to congressional testimony, 400 students at Dallas' Sunset High School received "A"s for a federally funded course about substance abuse that never met and had no teacher.
However well-intentioned, the nationalization of efforts to solve problems that should be dealt with on the local level undermines local and national responsibility and accountability. By claiming that effective anti-drug education can only come through federal programs, President Clinton has done America's youth a disservice.
Parents, teachers and community leaders should stop leaving to the federal government a responsibility that really belongs to them.
This essay by John Walters, president of the New Citizenship Project, is adapted from his article in the March/April issue of Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.