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Congressman Toby Roth of Wisconsin has come up with what sounds like a good idea for waging the increasingly expensive war against illegal drugs.

Or at least it would sound good if it were not for the federal government's penchant for turning silk purses into sows' ears.That penchant is illustrated by this week's report from the U.S. Customs Service on the results of the program of seizing the property of drug smugglers and selling it in order to defray the costs of enforcing the drug laws.

Instead of showing a solid profit as expected, the government has actually lost money on this program over the past four years because of mismanagement, waste, and fraud.

This sad experience takes the shine off of Rep. Roth's otherwise attractive proposal. His plan: Get more generous with the rewards for information leading to the forfeiture or seizure of drug money.

In his estimation, the government is too stingy with its present program letting such tipsters keep 25 percent of the captured drug money as long as the amount of the reward does not exceed $150,000. Instead, he wants to raise the ceiling to at least $500,000 or eliminate it altogether and give tipsters 50 percent of the take.

This plan has the potential of turning thousands of employees of banks, credit unions, casinos, currency exchanges, restaurants, hotels and other places where drug money is laundered into the eyes and ears of the federal narcotics agencies. What's more, the program would be financed at virtually no cost to taxpayers since the rewards would be generated through the seizure of illegal profits.

Rep. Roth's suggestion is certainly worth a try. But for it to succeed, the federal government must get out of the habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.