Twisting in the Wind


Attorney General Janet Reno's call for the resignation of al incumbent U.S. attorneys is politics as usual. When Democrats win the White House, Republican lawyers lose jobs, and vice versa.

But because one of the heads to be chopped belongs to U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens, and because Mr. Stephens is investigating House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, and because Mr. Rostenkowski is the self-described downfield blocker in Congress for President Clinton's entire economic package, what we have is Washington high drama.

Some scene-setting: Dan Rostenkowski, a product of the Chicago Daley machine, for a dozen years has run Ways and Means, the panel that will handle Mr. Clinton's tax, trade, health care, Social Security and welfare legislation. He is a consummate deal-maker, a domineering chairman who attracts loyal supporters. He got along with Ronald Reagan and George Bush; now he's a fervent drum-beater for Bill Clinton. If he goes -- and under Democratic rules he has to step aside if indicted -- the chairmanship passes to Rep. Sam Gibbons, whose control of the panel is in doubt.

During 1992, had he so chosen, "Rosty" could have wrapped up his congressional career and collected a cool million dollars stashed away in unspent campaign funds. Instead, when he took his oath for another term in January, he lost that million dollars under new House rules.

Was this public service in seven figures? Or was it an attempt to retain a political clout that diminishes his expendability?

For more than a year, Republican Prosecutor Stephens has been probing allegations that Mr. Rostenkowski's office had exchanged $56,000 in stamp vouchers (an inordinate amount, considering his free mailing privileges) for cash through the scandal-ridden House Post Office. A grand jury is also reportedly looking into questionable uses of campaign funds in Chicago.

These well-leaked charges have left Rosty besieged and his colleagues aware that he is distracted and out of sorts. A cloud of doubt and uncertainty hangs over the Hill. Legislators who believe Mr. Rostenkowski's ouster would be a disaster for the Clinton program nevertheless acknowledge that justice must be served.

Which puts the spotlight on Attorney General Reno. Mr. Stephens contends his office was ready to make "a critical decision" in the Rostenkowski case before he was told he had ten days to leave. The Justice Department disputes this version, saying no deadline had been set for his departure nor was the purge aimed at Mr. Stephens.

In the interest of fairness, this matter needs resolution. It is not good for Mr. Rostenkowski or Congress or the president or the American public to be left twisting in the wind. Yet the very abruptness of Ms. Reno's move guarantees that however this drama ends, the outcome will be sniffed and sifted for its political implications.

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