By Edward Walsh
The remarkable level of partisan bitterness and incivility that has defined the House investigation of campaign finance abuses from the beginning will come to a head as Burton (R-Ind.) tries for a second time to win immunity grants for four witnesses, an effort that the committee's united bloc of Democrats prevented last month. Another "no" vote will force Republicans to move a part of the investigation to a different committee.
The bickering could spill into the full House as well, if Democrats proceed with their threat to force a vote on removing Burton from the chairmanship as early as today -- and Republicans retaliate.
The uproar, which further blunts any attempt to unearth details of the campaign scandal, is seen by many as the inevitable outcome of an ill-cast investigation. According to interviews with sources in both parties, the moribund committee has been hampered from the outset by Burton's intent to dominate the proceedings -- and willingness to play into the hands of Democrats eager to portray the probe as a partisan witch hunt. Divisions within the committee's GOP staff caused delay and a lack of focus.
"There were a lot of self-inflicted wounds," said a Republican source who asked not to be identified.
"They made it easy because you can see they don't know what they're doing and then all you do is document it," said Phil Schiliro, chief aide to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat.
Also crippling any effort at fact-finding was the refusal of more than 90 witnesses to testify, either by invoking a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or by leaving the country -- a point that Burton focused on when he took to the House floor yesterday afternoon to urge Democrats to allow the investigation to proceed.
"This committee has been subjected to a level of stonewalling and obstruction that has never been seen by a congressional investigation," Burton said. "The fact that all these people have invoked their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination is a pretty strong indication that a lot of crimes were committed."
Directing most of his fire at the White House and the Democratic National Committee, he gave a point-by-point chronicle of actions that he said have stalled the investigation.
Speaking for the Democrats, Waxman said they would be willing to grant immunity if House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) agreed to remove Burton as chairman and change the rules of the committee to afford the minority more input into the process.
"What we want is a real investigation, a legitimate investigation, not one which is a one-man show," Waxman told reporters. "The last time we voted for immunity we were burned."
Adding to what Democrats have said is a pervasive mistrust of their Republican colleagues was the presence in the committee offices yesterday of David Bossie, Burton's chief investigator, who announced his resignation last week over his role in releasing edited transcripts of audio tapes of Webster L. Hubbell. Bossie continues to receive phone calls and faxes at the panel's offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, and has no specified date of departure. He was unavailable for comment yesterday because he was heading into a staff meeting.
Whatever the outcome of these two showdowns, they underscore how little progress has been made in an investigation that began more than a year ago and has cost several million dollars. During that time, the House committee has held only 16 days of public hearings, several of which were not directly related to campaign fund-raising abuses. It has also produced little information beyond what was disclosed during a similar investigation by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last year.
The immediate cause of the current furor surrounding the investigation was the release by Burton and his staff of edited transcripts of the prison telephone conversations of Hubbell, the former associate attorney general. But according to Democrats and Republicans familiar with the investigation, the problems began long before the Hubbell tapes controversy.
Before Hubbell there was Burton's statement to an Indianapolis newspaper that President Clinton is a "scumbag" and "that's why I'm after him." The "scumbag" remark got the most attention, but it was the "I'm after him" declaration that most appalled Republicans involved in the investigation.
"There's not a judge or a prosecutor in America who talks about being after somebody," said one.
Partisanship was always going to be a part of an investigation that Republicans hoped would uncover misdeeds and even illegalities by Democrats during the 1996 election cycle and Democrats hoped would expose the GOP as guilty of the same. Partisanship also plagued the Senate investigation, which several times bogged down in public displays of senatorial bickering.
In Waxman, the Republicans faced an experienced legislative infighter. But even some Republicans now concede that Burton miscalculated when he adopted partisan rules -- for example, giving himself unilateral authority to issue subpoenas and release confidential information without a committee vote.
"I don't think Burton realized the implications of his position," said one Republican. "It's like he can't help himself. His attitude is, 'I'm going to run the show, I'm not going to let anybody dictate to me.' "
Steve Ryan, a former Democratic counsel for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee who teaches a course on congressional investigations at Georgetown Law School, said Burton "forgot the first rule of a congressional investigation: You don't necessarily have to be fair, but you have to appear to be fair."
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who headed the Senate investigation, "tried manfully from the beginning to build bipartisan consensus," although not always with success. In contrast, Ornstein said, "from day one, Dan Burton did almost everything he could to destroy any chance that this would be seen as a bipartisan effort or an attempt to build a factual basis."
Kevin Binger, Burton's chief of staff, disputed the assessment that the House committee has done little. "We have accomplished more than people think," he said, citing the panel's four days of hearings into the Interior Department's controversial rejection of an application for an Indian gambling casino in Hudson, Wis. Those hearings, while much more extensive than the Senate's, also failed to establish a solid link between the furious lobbying surrounding the casino application and the Interior Department's ultimate decision.
Binger also defended the rules that Burton adopted, noting that Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) also enjoyed unilateral authority to issue subpoenas during an earlier congressional investigation. Binger said Hamilton never had to use this rare authority because "he did not face a White House that stalls and stonewalls or confront 90 witnesses who have either taken the Fifth Amendment or fled the country."
Whatever the reasons, it was the committee's most partisan members -- led by Burton on one side and Waxman on the other -- who came to dominate its public sessions. Democrats were equally vitriolic in their comments, with a low point coming when Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) chastised a witness, independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz, for failing to mention that he was a registered Republican. Lantos shocked his colleagues by comparing Smaltz to Kurt Waldheim, who "conveniently forgot several years when he was a Nazi."
Republican moderates such as Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.) for the most part found other things to do. Meanwhile, moderate and conservative Democrats such as Rep. Gary A. Condit (Calif.) closed ranks with their liberal colleagues on the immunity issue.
"If they [Republicans] needed our votes, you'd think they would find some middle ground," Condit said. "It was almost like they didn't give two hoots. We were looking for some sign of cooperation that we're in this together."
These public disputes were matched, according to committee sources, by internal divisions within the Republican staff. Referring to the faction led by David Bossie, a Republican veteran of the Senate campaign fund-raising investigation said, "I think there are more people over there [the House] who have an extreme anti-Clinton agenda that may not be helpful and may cloud the issues."
The infighting, which resulted in the departure of several experienced prosecutors, meant that when Burton became impatient to hold public hearings in the fall, "they were nowhere near ready," one source said. When hearings did begin in October, they lurched with no apparent theme or focus. "The tendency was to jump from one hot topic to the other to get on television," the source said.
More recently, the House investigation has focused on the question of foreign campaign contributions, although its most recent public hearings have concerned obscure cases dating from the 1992 and 1994 campaigns that attracted scant attention.
Staff writers George Lardner Jr. and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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