No grounds presented so far for impeachment The way out: House subcommittee hears reasons to call off proceedings but ignores them.

November 15, 1998

THE HOUSE Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution heard the persuasive case from experts that Kenneth Starr's allegations against President Clinton, if true, fall short of an impeachable case.

That was evident from the start. Mr. Starr, the independent counsel, is a distinguished appellate lawyer eminently qualified to argue constitutional issues. But as a prosecutor, he saw fit not to define an impeachable offense while accusing President Clinton of several. He was counting on scandal and outrage to win a weak case.

It is obvious that Mr. Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his verbal legerdemain, while dismaying to most Americans, fall short of the Constitution's "treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanors." The witnesses the subcommittee chose to hear were equally divided by party, disguising an apparent preponderance of expert opinion in the country for strict construction of the impeachment clause.

While many Republicans responded to the recent election by wanting the impeachment process behind them, the Judiciary Committee is not representative. It is filled with ideologues. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, preceded his hearing with his own conclusion that impeachment is required.

Typical was South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis' badgering of one of the most knowledgeable, if partisan, Democratic witnesses, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Mr. Inglis is the lamest duck in Washington after his defeat Nov. 3 in a bid to become a senator. He got no message from the experience and is willing to guide his party off the cliff.

Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, the Judiciary Committee chairman, is pushing forward on the basis of a previous understanding with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, which proved so disastrous for the GOP that it helped provoke Mr. Gingrich's resignation. Mr. Hyde is operating in a vacuum of power before Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana can consolidate authority as the next speaker.

Mr. Starr is scheduled to be called as a witness this week. If so, he should be quizzed about apparent collusion with Paula Jones' lawyers, about apparent conflict of interest in taking large private fees while employed by the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Clinton, about mocking grand jury secrecy in leaking evidence to smear Mr. Clinton, and about taping Mr. Clinton's NTC testimony to that end.

The House may impeach Mr. Clinton. All that requires is to radically expand the meaning of "other high crimes and misdemeanors." The nation would be saddled with the precedent and political combat in Washington would be changed utterly. This should not be done without reflection.

Many figures from both parties have proposed a middle ground of censure or reprimand of the president by Congress, which the Constitution neither provides nor prohibits. The expert witnesses who appeared before Mr. Canady's subcommittee were genuinely divided over this. It is a middle way out, with the virtue of providing politicians an exit strategy.

The need for such a strategy is theirs, not the nation's. Going forward with an impeachment that deserves to fail and seems doomed to do so is no strategy at all.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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