NEEDLE EXCHANGE: A Closer Look At Clinton’s Decision
Today's Washington Post looks at the Clinton administration's "last minute" decision to reverse a planned announcement that the ban on federal funding for needle exchange-programs would be lifted. Early Monday morning, the Post reports, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and her staff were preparing to announce an end to the ban, based on indications that President Clinton had given the previous week. But "[s]hortly before 9 a.m., she was called out of the meeting for a phone call from White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles," who told her that ending the ban "was proving too politically risky. President Clinton had changed his mind." According to "senior administration officials," the change of heart "offers a vivid view into decision-making in Clinton's second term," where the president "is determined to avoid giving his opponents any openings against him on lightning-rod issues."
The Post article details the internal struggle within the administration, noting that drug czar Barry McCaffrey worked with congressional Republicans to build opposition to lifting the funding ban. Other administration officials, including Vice President Al Gore, took Shalala's side in the dispute. Gore, the Post reports, said "the inevitable political flak the decision would incite was worth absorbing." Clinton reversed course, deciding against lifting the ban Sunday night on his return trip from the South American summit. During the trip, officials said "the strong-willed McCaffrey had further pressed his case" against needle exchange, and Clinton "told aides he had read a persuasive letter against needle exchanges from former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr."
The administration's current policy is that needle exchanges work and that local communities should implement them with their own funds. "Today," the Post reports, "the George Soros Foundation plans to announce that it will give $1 million in matching grants to needle exchanges across the United States" (Harris/Goldstein, 4/23).
An editorial in yesterday's Greensboro News & Record reads: "McCaffrey said the distributing sterile syringes sends the wrong message to children. That's nonsense. These programs don't send any 'message' at all to children. But the administration's decision does send a message to state and local officials: They can continue to block needle exchanges and hide behind the White House skirt. The most charitable possible explanation of the Clinton administration's policy is that it was a triumph of politics over science. A more accurate description would be utter incoherence" (4/22).