Partisanship ad Nauseam

Speaker Newt Gingrich says that Attorney General Janet Reno should be investigated by Congress for conflict of interest. House majority leader Dick Armey says that she should resign. Last month the Senate passed a sense-of-the-Senate resolution calling for appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising.

All this because the attorney general, on the advice of her career staff, determined that the statutory threshold for moving to name an independent counsel has not be reached.

And the loser is ...

The attack on her - for many a welcome diversion from writing a budget - is likely to continue. Who loses when a process designed to be nonpartisan is plunged into the partisan arena? The loser, in the first place, is whatever remains of the notion that there are institutions and laws that can be insulated against partisanship.

It was nonpartisanship that Congress had in mind in 1978 when it passed a law seeking to ensure that never again could a Richard Nixon dismiss the prosecutor investigating him. Since then there have been 15 special prosecutors - or independent counsels as they later came to be called.

Most of them managed to do their work free from the glare of partisanship. In seven cases they determined that there was no basis for indictment. During the Reagan administration, Attorney General Edwin Meese actually requested an investigation of himself.

More recently, Lawrence Walsh, who investigated Iran-Contra, came under attack from Reagan supporters for being overzealous. Kenneth Starr, who is investigating Whitewater and related matters, has come under concentrated Democratic attack as having it in for the Clintons and trying to run out on his assignment to a conservative-financed college in Malibu, Calif.

While prosecutors have come under attack, this is the first time that a campaign has been launched against the attorney general responsible for the initial determination of whether a threshold has been reached triggering application of the statute.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says that he personally has confidence in Ms. Reno but that, because of her ties to the president, she should seek an independent counsel since there is a perception that she has a conflict of interest.

But every attorney general has a relationship with the president, and the perception of conflict is in the eye of the perceiver. For Republicans to demand action because of a perception of conflict that they have worked to create is to turn the matter on its head.

In December 1992, Republicans blocked the renewal of the independent counsel statute. In 1994, when Whitewater had begun to surface, they were happy to revive it. But they seem unwilling to live by its terms. That goes far to undermine the assumption of regularity on which all nonpartisan process is based.

The nation's best interests

Clearly, Reno's letter to congressional leaders explaining her position has not stilled the controversy.

Speaker Gingrich said that what the attorney general had done was something "you might have expected from John Mitchell in 1973." (Gingrich's Watergate history is a bit weak. In 1973, Elliot Richardson was attorney general until he resigned in October over the "Saturday Night Massacre" of special prosecutor Archibald Cox.)

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, made a speech on the Senate floor charging that Reno had ignored "the nation's best interests."

To all this President Clinton replied that "this should not be a political matter - this should be a legal matter."

But it is a political matter now.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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