A key Senate Republican urged Congress yesterday to provide a "decent burial" for the independent counsel law and vest in the attorney general all authority to appoint special counsels to investigate high-level corruption, subject to rules approved by Congress.
Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) unveiled his proposal nine days before the controversial law -- which gave rise to more than 20 investigations over the last two decades, including Kenneth W. Starr's probe of President Clinton -- is to expire.
When the law lapses June 30, it will be up to the attorney general to decide whether to choose outside counsels to investigate allegations of misconduct by top government officials, as it was before the independent counsel law was passed in 1978 following the Watergate scandal.
The Justice Department is drafting rules to guide the selection of these attorneys, but some in Congress, including Thompson and members of a House subcommittee, want to set the procedures in law. Others, including four members of Thompson's committee, which has jurisdiction over the independent counsel law, are drafting legislation to revive the law and revamp it to address criticisms.
There appears to be little support in either house for retaining the law, even with changes. Nor is there much of a consensus about what to do in its place or sense of urgency about acting, according to many lawmakers.
At a news conference to announce his proposal, Thompson said the independent counsel law was a "noble" but flawed effort to promote integrity in government. Rather than facilitate appointment of outside counsels, it has thrown up technical obstacles that an attorney general can use to avoid making the appointments, blurring the accountability for inaction, he said. It has become a "crutch" for everyone, he added.
So Congress should let the law die and "go back to first principles and let the Constitution be our guide," Thompson said, by giving "responsibility and accountability" for such investigations "back to the Justice Department."
Thompson said he will introduce legislation shortly, possibly as an amendment to an appropriations bill due for action in the next week or two, to require the attorney general to come up with regulations for appointment, conduct and removal of a special counsel.
But these regulations could not take effect until they have been approved by Congress and signed by the president, he said. Some have raised separation-of-powers questions about such a move, but Thompson indicated that he believed it would pass constitutional muster.
A House Judiciary subcommittee headed by Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) also is considering a bill that would require the attorney general to promulgate rules for appointment of special counsels, but it is less specific in its mandates and would not require congressional approval of the rules before they take effect.
Under the expiring law, independent counsels are appointed by a judicial panel after the attorney general determines that the law has been triggered, which has been a source of continual and often bitter dispute between Attorney General Janet Reno and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the department was studying Thompson's proposal and reserving comment until the study was complete.
Legislation being drafted by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) would keep the structure of the independent counsel law but with major changes, according to aides to the senators. The threshold for appointment of counsels would be raised, counsels would be restricted to a two-year term that could be extended one year at a time and counsels would have to operate within a budget. Counsels could be appointed only for the president, vice president, Cabinet members and the president's chief of staff. Other changes are proposed to ensure impartiality on the part of the counsel and the judges who choose them.
CAPTION: Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) at news conference in which he proposed giving attorney general authority to appoint counsels to probe corruption.