A Phony Partisanship
After months of delay, drug czar nominee John Walters finally gets a hearing and Democrats no longer seem serious about opposing him.
12:00 AM, Oct 11, 2001 • By BETH HENARY
ON SEPTEMBER 11, TWO OF PRESIDENT BUSH'S cabinet-level administrative positions sat dormant: United Nations ambassador and National Drug Control Policy director, or drug czar. But the terrorist attacks inspired bipartisan cooperation on a number of foreign policy and domestic security issues. Just three days later, on September 14, the Senate unanimously confirmed John D. Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations, even though he had previously been assured a rigorous cross-examination on his record as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s.
John Walters, Bush's nominee for drug czar, had been scheduled for a hearing before the Youth Violence judiciary subcommittee on September 11, but that hearing was postponed. As of September 11, Walters had been waiting four months, since his nomination in May, to get the committee's ear. Yesterday Walters, former drug prevention manager at the Department of Education and former chief-of-staff for drug czar William Bennett, finally got his hearing.
Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, was present although he is not a member of the subcommittee. Leahy downplayed the delay in scheduling the initial Walters confirmation hearing, forcing the nominee to admit the drug war was being prosecuted without him. "There are 4,161 drug enforcement agents. Do you think they are doing a good job? There are 10,522 customs agents. Do you think they are doing a good job [working to control drug trafficking and use]?" he asked the candidate.
Subcommittee chairman Joe Biden of Delaware also commented on the late hearing: "The tardiness of this hearing has nothing to do with the lack of consequence of the office."
The tone of the interrogation was split clearly along party lines. Democrats zeroed in on a piece Walters wrote for The Weekly Standard in which he proposed that the idea that "the criminal justice system is unjustly punishing young black men" is an urban myth. Senators Leahy and Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, insisted blacks are imprisoned at disproportionately higher rates than those at which they actually use drugs, and equated this with racial profiling.
The major issue that creates enemies for Walters--drug treatment--was a pounding point for Democrats. Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, does not serve on the subcommittee but, like Leahy, took it upon himself to attend. He demanded Walters demonstrate when in his career he had fought for treatment rather than mere punishment.
Walters consistently hammered his belief that a culture of intolerance for drug use is central to reducing the demand for drugs.
"The people working on this issue feel like the culture has abandoned them," he said of community anti-drug advocates. "There needs to be a consensus between what society says about drug use and what parents say."
One senator who advocated fiercely for Walters was Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, who introduced Walters to the committee in glowing terms. Hatch pressed for a swift confirmation, tying his urgency to the events of September 11."The documented connection between international drug trafficking and terrorist activities and the ongoing war against drugs and terrorism, now more than ever, the administration and the country need to have its drug czar in place," he said.
Hatch acknowledged consulting with Walters on the Drug Abuse Education, Prevention, and Treatment Act, which he introduced earlier this session with Senator Leahy. Although Walters apparently convinced Hatch of his support for drug treatment, Leahy was not persuaded as of yesterday. His statement for the record was intended to portray Walters as a lock-'em-up zealot: "I am not sure this [Walters's perceived affinity for law enforcement] is what America needs in its new drug czar."
Chairman Biden, Walters's most persistent questioner, grilled him on whether he would keep numerous grant programs--totaling 90 percent of the office's budget--under his authority or delegate them to enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice. Walters had at one time favored doing so, and Biden expressed concern that such an action would dilute the potency of the drug czar office. Interestingly, in 1993, Biden did not publicly object to President Clinton's decision to slash the drug czar's staff from 146 to 25.
Despite this fussing, the subcommittee is expected to send the nomination to the full Judiciary Committee next week. From there it will go to the Senate floor. Hill watchers expect him to be confirmed. Maybe September 11 has changed Hill politics: Senators aren't really obstructionists anymore; they just like to look that way.
Beth Henary is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.