Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and William Cohen, R-Maine, probably have no expectation that their bill extending the law authorizing special prosecutors or independent counsels will be enacted. After 14 years, this is an idea whose time has obviously come and gone.
One reason is that one case has occupied a special prosecutor for nearly half the life of the law. Lawrence Walsh and his subordinates have been investigating the Iran-contra affair for over five-and-a-half years. Many members of Congress oppose keeping the law on the books because they believe this case shows that a special prosecutor with explicit statutory authorization can become completely and dangerously out of control of the political and judicial systems.
Another reason for the fact that the law is going to be allowed to expire this year is that Senators Levin and Cohen have proposed making it apply to members of Congress. The home of the House of Representatives Bank and Post Office and of the Keating Five senators is not anxious to have a dogged, unrestrained "Inspector" Walsh type on their case.
Though long-time supporters of the special prosecutor approach, we are not saddened by the prospect of the law's expiration. Even without it, special prosecutors who are relatively independent can be appointed by the attorney general. In fact, one now exists to probe the House Bank. And, in fact, the special prosecutors whose efforts brought about the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon and the convictions of 24 members of his administration or campaign staff were appointed before the law was on the books.
If Congress, the press, the public and senior career law enforcement officials in the Justice Department are diligent in watching for wrongdoing by members of a president's closest, highest ranking aides -- and if they clamor for special prosecutors when they think they see such wrongdoing -- public opinion will force any administration to appoint such a prosecutor with the independence needed to do the job.