Whitewater hearings show how Congress wastes time



WASHINGTON -- The congressional investigation of Whitewater is producing an odd political parlay -- a situation in which everyone loses.

On the central issue of the inquiry, President Clinton has escaped unscathed. There has been no finding that the White House influenced in any way the conduct of the Resolution Trust Corp. in investigating the Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the Little Rock thrift involved in the Whitewater case.

But even that "victory" has been somewhat tarnished by testimony suggesting that the White House angrily resisted the plan of Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman to recuse himself -- that is, disqualify himself -- from any involvement in the Madison case.

A conflict of interest might have resulted from his second and simultaneous role as acting RTC chairman because he was so close to the Clintons and an appointee of the president.

The only logical inference that can be drawn from that attitude on the part of the White House is that Clinton's advisers wanted to keep a friend in place lest someone else would go hog wild with Madison.

In other words, the White House didn't influence the RTC investigation but might have liked to do so.

The independent counsel, Robert Fiske, found nothing criminal in the White House conduct. And White House counsel Lloyd Cutler and other investigators found nothing unethical, either.

But, whatever their definitions of ethics, there was clearly something smelly -- although politically inevitable -- in the White House getting a "heads up" when the Madison case was being referred to the Justice Department.

The general picture of the administration derived from hearings before both the Senate and House banking panels is not a pretty one.

There was, above all, the spectacle of Altman on the defensive trying to explain contradictions in his earlier testimony by drawing some fine distinction of what did or did not constitute a "substantive" talk about Madison with White House officials.

Then there was the embarrassing picture of Joshua Steiner, the 28-year-old chief of staff for the Treasury Department, disavowing his own diaries in which he recorded how Altman had "gracefully ducked" the Senate committee's earlier questions and how Altman had been under "intense pressure" from the White House not to recuse himself at the RTC.

Steiner insisted neither of those things happened, but was never quite clear on why he wrote them down that way at the time.

Then there was the conflict between Altman and Jean Hanson, the Treasury Department counsel, on whether he directed her to give the White House that "heads up" on the criminal referral in September 1993.

She said that's what happened; he said that it didn't happen -- not that he couldn't recall but flat-out that it didn't happen. That requires you to believe Hanson went over to the White House on her own initiative, a bit of a stretch.

So the view the country has been given of some prominent players in the administration is that they made some dumb mistakes in reacting to the Madison case, then fell out among themselves on how that happened and how to explain it.

But if the Clinton administration has suffered still another jolt from being perceived once again as bumbling and inept, Congress has done nothing to burnish its own image.

On the contrary, any voters who have bothered to watch have seen these legions of representatives and senators sitting there hour after hour, each waiting for his or her own five or 10 minutes of time -- and, more to the point, visibility on television -- to ask the same questions over and over again, all without any practical result in terms of either the oversight or legislative functions of Congress.

This is, of course, just the kind of thing voters find most baffling about politicians in Washington.

Here they are supposedly pressed for time in deciding the future of the health care system -- 14 percent of the gross domestic product -- and they still have time to sit there until 2 a.m., apparently trying to get Roger Altman to break down and confess.

Nor does any of this have anything to do with the central questions about the legality and propriety of Clinton's involvement in a land deal when he was governor of Arkansas.

That will have to wait for another time and perhaps another congressional committee.

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