Plaudits for Impresarios Of Next House Inquiry

As new panel prepares to probe 'China connection,' lawmakers from both parties praise duo tapped to head it.

Congressional investigations of alleged White House transgressions have come and gone faster than late-night challengers to Leno and Letterman.

There was "The Al D'Amato Show," in which the New York Republican looked into the Whitewater banking scandal. That was followed by "The Fred and John Hour": Sens. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee and John Glenn (D) of Ohio played a bickering committee chairman and minority member investigating possible illegal Chinese-government donations in the 1996 campaign.

Then came "Indiana Dan Meets the Waxman": Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana spars with Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California in an inquiry critics say covers the same ground and, in the end, is a show about nothing.

The newest investigation, however, could break the mold. Reps. Christopher Cox (R) of California and Norm Dicks (D) of Washington, just named to lead a House select committee to look into the alleged transfer of sensitive technology to China, are launching their inquiry with promises to work together.

The committee will examine issues ranging from the 1996 election campaign to missile technology. Members from both parties generally agree that the two veterans will make this an investigation to be reckoned with.

"I have the highest respect for both of them," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, a longtime critic of United States policy towards China. She nonetheless worries that the committee is unnecessary and that Speaker Newt Gingrich will interfere behind the scenes.

THE committee, with six months to investigate and report, has three fundamental questions to answer:

* Whether the Bush-Clinton policy permitting US-owned satellites to be launched on foreign rockets, particularly Chinese rockets, is in America's best interest.

* Whether information damaging to US national security was transferred to China by two American companies - Loral Space & Communications Ltd. and Hughes Electronics Corp. - after the failed launch of a satellite in China, and whether the transfer enhanced Chinese ballistic missiles.

* Whether domestic or foreign interests made campaign donations in an effort to influence the US government's technology-transfer decisions. Republican critics of the Clinton administration note that Loral chairman Bernard Schwartz was the largest single contributor to the Democratic National Committee in 1996. Mr. Schwartz denies any involvement in the alleged technology transfer.

As the committee begins to hire staff and prepare for hearings, it is led by a congressman whom The Almanac of American Politics calls "one of the intellectual leaders of his party in the House." First elected to Congress in 1988, Representative Cox had previously served as an assistant White House counsel under President Reagan. In the mid-'80s, he and his father also published an English-language version of Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party daily.

Representing the area around Irvine and Newport Beach in California, Cox chairs the House Republican Policy Committee, a key leadership position. He worked to abolish the Interstate Commerce Commission and wrote the law to limit federal death-penalty appeals. His proposal to temporarily ban taxes on goods and services sold over the Internet passed the House last Tuesday.

On foreign affairs, Cox is a longtime critic of China policy under the Bush and Clinton administrations, including opposing extension of normal trading status (most favored nation, or MFN) to Beijing.

"From the Republican standpoint, they made a good pick," says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, Cox's Harvard-law classmate. "He's bright, hardworking, and more partisan than he appears to be.... He's capable of partisanship but without it being gross or blatant."

Representative Dicks, for his part, says knowing Cox would be the chairman made it easier for him to decide to accept the job as the select committee's lead Democrat. "He's considered a very solid, serious individual who has made it clear that he wanted to keep this thing on the merits," Dicks says of his colleague.

Dicks represents Washington's Sixth District, home to Bremerton and Tacoma. Before his election in 1976, he worked on the staff of Sen. Warren Magnuson (D). On national-security and trade issues, he defended the MX nuclear missile in the 1980s and is an advocate of the F-117 Stealth fighter and the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Unlike Cox, however, Dicks is a strong supporter of normal trade status for China. His state, headquarters to Boeing Co., already accounts for about one-quarter of all exports to the Chinese.

So far, Dicks says, Cox has worked to accommodate his concerns. When Democrats proposed a 5-to-4 committee ratio instead of the GOP's suggested 5 to 3, Republicans acquiesced. "If we can keep politics out of this and focus on the central issue," Dicks says, "I think we can do a fair and objective job."

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