How Congress should respond

THE Iran arms affair presents Congress with its own opportunities and responsibilities, challenges and need for restraint. Opportunity. Careers can be advanced at the same time others are broken. Some Senate and House leaders have already begun to distinguish themselves, for better or worse, by the fairness, judiciousness, or brashness of their responses. To stress the positive: Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has quickly and courageously assessed the management crisis in the White House; Sen. Robert Dole, the Senate majority leader, has summed up well the need for Congress to consolidate and organize its inquiries; Rep. Robert Michel of Illinois, the House minority leader, has similarly taken a forthright stand for congressional oversight on foreign policy; and Rep. Tom Foley of Washington, the majority whip, has vigorously argued it is the executive branch's constitutional duty, not to break the law, but to persuade Congress to change the law when it objects to legislative restrictions.

Political statesmanship will help give direction to the inquiry, which could otherwise run off in all directions. It will assure individual and party prospects. Conversely, grandstanding will be taken for what it is.

Responsibility. The taking of the Fifth Amendment by the most crucial witnesses, Lt. Col. Oliver North and Adm. John Poindexter, in the first days of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, indicates the tough decisions ahead. Taking the Fifth is no admission of guilt. Witnesses who also face special prosecutor inquiry may want to seek immunity from criminal charges. They may want to delay testifying to learn the likely line of questioning. As citizens, they have rights. The Congress will have to decide, at the highest levels, how to proceed. A case can be made for separate House and Senate inquiries, if it can be shown the subject matter can be coherently divided. It makes the most sense, however, to consolidate hearings into one joint House-Senate forum. These decisions should be taken as soon as possible. But the organization of the inquiry should conform to the ranking and roles of members of the next Congress, whose business it will be to conclude it.

Challenge. Congress's most difficult job may be to support the administration's executive authority, especially in the conduct of foreign policy, at the same time it is challenging the exercise of that authority in the Iran affair. American foreign policy must advance. It cannot be made hostage of a tussle over executive privilege or cooperation. Not that Congress should yield one inch on its constitutional authority. But patience and clarity will be demanded to keep relations with the White House from descending into a power struggle.

Restraint. Modesty should accompany Congress's efforts. Congress itself is hardly an unflawed human institution. Deference to due legislative and legal process, exactness in questioning, and fairness in conclusion are most needed. They will lend a spirit and tone that can more quickly correct mistakes and restore confidence in Washington's leadership.

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