Suddenly, President's Fate Is Put in Congress's Hands
By Ruth Marcus
Yesterday, with barely a few minutes' warning, two vans from Starr's office arrived on the Capitol plaza and changed the American political landscape. In one dramatic, televised moment, the focal point of the Clinton investigation moved from the independent counsel to Congress, and the long-running inquiry into the president's actions became a prelude for possible impeachment.
Members of Congress knew the day would eventually come when Starr presented his evidence against President Clinton but were fundamentally unprepared when he finally did. Like residents of a beach town who knew a hurricane was on its way but never got an accurate forecast of its exact arrival time, they had not even agreed among themselves on how and when they would read Starr's report.
Only once before this century has Congress been forced to confront the agonizing question that Starr's report has now thrust upon it: Do a president's actions amount to a reason to remove him from office?
"No one looks forward to this traumatic journey that we're about to enter," Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who would preside over any impeachment proceedings, said yesterday.
Twenty-four years ago, in the impeachment inquiry that ended in President Richard M. Nixon's resignation, the country went through the wrenching process of removing a president and survived -- something that, for better or worse, makes the prospect of another impeachment proceeding slightly less alarming.
But the allegations against Clinton, at least as they have emerged so far, raise constitutional questions even more complex than those Congress faced during the Nixon inquiry.
Although Nixon's defenders argued that he could not be impeached for actions that did not violate criminal law, Nixon's conduct indisputably concerned his official duties and the ways in which he used, or misused, the powers granted to him as president.
Members assessing Clinton's situation will be forced to define for themselves what the proper boundaries are between a president's personal and public lives and whether Clinton's alleged behavior so tarnishes his ability to perform his constitutional function that he must be removed.
Clinton's lawyer, David E. Kendall, declared yesterday that whatever Starr's report contains, "There is no basis for impeachment." But there is no chance that assertion will end the matter.
Bernard W. Nussbaum, who served as a lawyer on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment and later as Clinton's first White House counsel, said the fact of Nixon's resignation makes the idea of Clinton's removal "less scary. It was done once before -- a president was forced out of office and so we created a precedent that makes it easier to do," he said.
"I think we've defined it down and it's become very dangerous now because if you can do this, it really starts changing our system. If you can say the president has brought the office into disrepute, that could apply to almost any president."
But others saw significant and ominous parallels for Clinton inthe Nixon experience, pointing to the rapid erosion of public support for Nixon as the country discovered that it had been lied to about his role in the Watergate coverup.
"We all suffer from a certain schizophrenia in that, in one respect, we do blame Starr for having brought these sidebar matters to our attention," said William Van Alstyne, a constitutional scholar at Duke University, "but in the president's manner of handling them he has probably spent almost fatal capital and seriously compromised his ability to maintain credibility on any matter."
Van Alstyne said the "larger question of the inability of the president to maintain public credibility as he attempts to develop policy, to address Congress, to be convincing to the American people" was a legitimate issue for members considering taking action against Clinton. "I would not think it is a partisan or frivolous or worrisome use of the impeachment process," he said.
William and Mary law professor Michael Gerhardt, author of a book on impeachment, said there were similarities and differences between the two presidents.
"The allegations against Nixon were at their core about his use of official power in abusive ways and ways that exceeded their proper scope," he said. While the fact involving Clinton's actions are still emerging, he said, "it's not so much his direct exercise of power that's at issue but his having done things that reflect on his trustworthiness. That is both the same and different than the Nixon case."
While the Nixon impeachment offers some guidance to members contemplating the different set of allegations against Clinton, no one can know where the constitutional journey that a reluctant Congress embarked on today will end.
In Clinton's impeachment by the House, trial by the Senate and eventual ouster? In his grudging resignation from office? Or in a limping finale to his second term in which he will manage to convince Congress, at one stage or another, to allow him to remain but will find his presidency hobbled, and his role in history irrevocably soiled, by his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky?
The arrival of Starr's report "means that we have started a process. We don't know where it's going to end, and it's like getting on an escalator and we can't figure out how to get off," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at Brookings Institution. But, he said, at the very least, Clinton "has destroyed his own presidency."
In more than 200 years, Congress has voted to impeach only 16 officials, including a single president, Andrew Johnson in 1868, who survived his Senate trial by a single vote. Nixon resigned his office after the House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against him.
Congress has shown no eagerness to plunge into the sordid set of facts that Starr has unearthed, but it set itself up for this very situation 20 years ago when it included in the independent counsel law a provision requiring the prosecutor to transmit to Congress any "substantial and credible" evidence of possible impeachable offenses.
"I'm glad I'm not on the committee now and it's somebody else's problem," said former Rep. M. Caldwell Butler, a Virginia Republican who served on the Judiciary Committee during the Nixon inquiry and ultimately broke with the president.
"It was a wrenching process," Butler said of the Nixon impeachment. "The thought of removing a president of the United States was frightening to all of us, and particularly those of the president's party."
Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a Judiciary committee member, noted that during the Nixon inquiry, the committee sifted through the evidence in secret sessions; indeed, the 60-page "road map" sent by Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski has never been made public. This time around, Hutchinson said, Congress will not have that luxury.
"That historical precedent will not work today, he said. "There's just such a yearning for openness, I don't believe that would be acceptable. So it will be more difficult to maintain bipartisanship with every camera and tape recorder awaiting a Judiciary Committee member as he leaves the room."
Whatever action Congress takes, said University of San Diego sociologist Michael Schudson, author of "Watergate in American Memory," Clinton's presidency, much like Nixon's, will be forever marred. "Whether he's impeached or not impeached, resigns or doesn't resign," Schudson said. "his extramarital affairs will absolutely color people's judgment about him for a long time to come."
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