Play It by the Rules

The United States is a nation of laws and respect for the law. A good deal of that respect comes from faith that, in most cases, the justice system works fairly and that the government must follow due process in attempting to convict a defendant.

President Clinton deserves the same due process as any other citizen charged with a crime. However, recognizing the possibilities for presidential misconduct and abuse of power, the framers of the US Constitution created a special procedure for cases against the chief executive, the vice president, and federal judges.

The House of Representatives has the power of impeachment (the bringing of charges) for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." If impeached, an official is then tried before the Senate, with a two-thirds vote required to convict and remove from office.

The independent-counsel law passed following Richard Nixon's resignation adds another step. It provides for a preliminary investigation by such a counsel, who shall report to Congress any evidence that "may constitute grounds for an impeachment."

Having released independent counsel Kenneth Starr's main report to the public, the House must now decide how its Judiciary Committee will proceed. Already, bipartisanship's fragility is apparent. At issue: Should committee chairman Henry Hyde be able to issue subpoenas and compel testimony without Democrats' approval? If Republicans want the public to see the probe as fair, they should follow Watergate precedent: allow Democrats to refer subpoenas they find objectionable to the full committee.

The committee will review Mr. Starr's information and decide whether to launch impeachment hearings. While the committee is not bound by the report, Chairman Hyde says he believes an inquiry will be needed. We agree. It would allow a public evaluation of the charges and also give the president an opportunity to tell his side. Then the committee would either recommend impeachment or vote to drop the matter.

Many Democrats, desperate for a way out of a damaging situation weeks before elections, advocate censure in lieu of impeachment. Republicans are currently cool to the idea, which they see as a meaningless slap on the wrist.

So Judiciary must now decide whether Mr. Clinton committed impeachable offenses: perjury (knowingly making a material false statement under oath), obstruction of justice, witness-tampering, or abuse of power. The president's lawyers are trying to convince the committee that hearings are unnecessary. In doing so they are splitting hairs, drawing fire from Democratic leaders in Congress, whose support Clinton must retain.

The president should play it straight, as should congressional Republicans. If the public believes that everyone is playing by the rules, it will support the final result, whatever it is.

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