Why scandal consumes capital

'Gotcha' culture hits new levels in Washington amid Clinton's missteps and Congress's unrelenting probes.

After the annus horribilis of impeachment, logic might suggest that political Washington had little appetite left for investigating the Clinton administration. But scandal keeps erupting, and lawmakers keep switching on the klieg lights for public grillings on a new round of subjects: President Clinton's pardon of Puerto Rican extremists, US policy in Russia, and the FBI's use of incendiary devices in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Unabated probes of the executive branch show how deeply the investigative culture is ingrained in Washington. Moreover, some now say the trend has reached such heights that it is unlikely to abate for the duration of this administration - and perhaps beyond. For now, the capital is increasingly polarized by a president and congressional leaders who are barely on speaking terms, a coming election, and, of course, continued White House blunders. The result is not only a more intense partisanship and a policy stalemate, but perhaps more seriously, a public that doubts the credibility of congressional investigations, political observers say. "Most people do not believe any longer that investigations hold credence," says Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a research group on public life and politics. It's not that people don't want investigations, he says, it's that they want ones that mean something. "People believe that much of the investigating is to destroy individuals, and not to search for the truth," says Mr. Harwood. It's another reason, he says, that "people are clearly retreating from public life" and voter turnout at the national level is at its lowest point since 1942. The White House claims that pure politics is what's behind the investigative fervor, with Chief of Staff John Podesta likening congressional zeal to Captain Ahab's relentless pursuit of Moby Dick: "They do it for hate's sake," he said last week. The White House sees a new probe surrounding Mr. Clinton's decision to grant clemency to 16 Puerto Rican nationalists as a case in point. Under fire for refusing to give Congress subpoenaed documents, the White House is reminding lawmakers that clemency is an executive function not subject to congressional oversight. Indeed, Democrats in Congress didn't subpoena the Bush administration after the president granted controversial pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and four others in the Iran-contra scandal, says James Pfiffner, a professor of government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "It sort of looks to me like the Republicans want to try to discredit the president some more," he says.

GOP motives Republicans in Congress vigorously deny their motives are political, though Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says politics provides an important backdrop and limbers up lawmakers' trigger fingers. With relations between Congress and the White House at their worst since Watergate, "any unique element" coming from the administration will prompt Congress to investigate, he says. Additionally, because Congress is stymied on the legislative front, it's moving ahead where it can - on the investigative front. "Congress is going to exercise its investigative muscles because it has some difficulty in passing legislation," says Mr. Wittmann. While politics plays a major role, so do missteps by the Clinton administration, which, since 1995, has employed three successive, full-time press spokesmen just to handle scandal inquiries. Campaign-finance abuses, the White House collection of FBI files on Republicans, and the Waco tragedy strike outsiders such as Pfiffner as legitimate avenues of inquiry - and certainly within the purview of Congress, whose constitutional duty requires it to act as a watchdog on the executive branch. In fact, a journey through presidential history shows Congress to be an active investigator, regardless of whether a divided or a unified government is in power in Washington, says David Mayhew, author of "Divided We Govern." "Clinton doesn't have any license to feel more hassled than Truman," says Mr. Mayhew, noting that President Truman endured a barrage of congressional investigations, ranging from influence peddling by White House staff to misdirection of the Korean War. McCarthyism, Watergate, the Iran-contra scandal - major investigations have hit every president in post-war history, says Mayhew, a professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

'Gotcha' mentality Still, many observers - and certainly the White House - believe this is the most investigated administration in history, fueled in part by a gotcha mentality that has gripped the media ever since Watergate. Researchers like Harwood see the trend as destructive to public life, and John Zogby, an independent pollster, warns that if Republicans hope to make election hay of all of their investigations, they should think again. While their probes may appeal to the Republican base, the public has repudiated them twice, in 1996 and in 1998, Mr. Zogby says. "We're very close to a point of diminishing returns for Republicans," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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