Democrats vs. Burton is another congressional sham battle

May 15, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The fight between Rep. Dan Burton and House Democrats is another of those sham battles for which Congress has become famous. Nothing is as it seems.

Mr. Burton, the loose-cannon Indiana conservative, seems to be suggesting that if he is allowed to grant immunity to four witnesses before the House Government Reform and Oversight

Committee, he will open some rich vein of political gold. Finally, he seems to be suggesting the nation will see how grossly the Democrats violated campaign finance laws in 1996.

But Mr. Burton has had his committee staff pursuing these questions for more than a year at a cost of several million dollars and has brought forth not even a mouse. The investigation has been a joke, lurching from one subject to another usually on the strength of what some newspaper had just disclosed. What the Republicans are really trying to do here is reinforce the picture, by no means entirely inaccurate, of the Democrats stonewalling on the whole investigation.

At one level, the Republicans are dead right. There were gross excesses in the way President Clinton and his campaign committee raised money for the re-election campaign. The selling of the Lincoln Bedroom and invitations to White House coffees were extraordinarily crude. Big dollars did indeed buy access. But the facts in these cases have come largely from newspapers and other inquiries, not from Mr. Burton's committee.

Meanwhile, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, is playing an equally disingenuous but far more clever game. The Democrats will agree to immunity, he says, only if Mr. Burton is replaced as the chief investigator, which would be a major embarrassment for the Republicans. The inquiry so far, says Mr. Waxman, is "out of control and without credibility."

Mr. Waxman is right about that. But the Democrats don't really want to get Mr. Burton off the stage. On the contrary, it is fair to say that the best thing Mr. Clinton has going for him in all the various investigations is an attack dog enemy like Dan Burton. Although they cannot say so publicly, many Republicans in the House share that view.

Mr. Burton is, after all, the Republican who called Mr. Clinton a "scumbag," a word not often used about a president in public debate. And he is the one who told a newspaper back home that "I'm after him," not the kind of thing you usually hear from %J someone pretending to conduct a nonpartisan investigation.

Mr. Burton is also the one who stepped in the mud by releasing selectively edited tapes of conversations between the imprisoned Webster Hubbell and his wife. That one was so raw that not even the most zealous Republicans felt comfortable defending it.

In fact, the accurate tapes did include remarks by Hubbell that raised interesting questions at least about what kind of help and what kind of pressure he had received from the White House to remain silent about the Clintons' role in the original Whitewater land deal. But by cutting out exculpatory comments by Hubbell, Mr. Burton made the issue the editing rather than the content of the transcripts, another bonus for the White House.

From the outset, Mr. Burton made himself vulnerable to legitimate criticism when he took on the unilateral authority to issue subpoenas to witnesses. All along the picture projected by the Indiana conservative has been of a man out of control on some monomaniacal crusade to nail the Clintons. Why should the Democrats want to interfere with that kind of self-destructive behavior?

So what we have in the House these days is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The one saving grace for Congress may be that most Americans decided some time ago that this issue doesn't deserve serious attention anyway. If anyone is listening to either Dan Burton or Henry Waxman, it would be a great surprise.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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