Democrats can't talk like stonewallers now ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- Never was the question of whose ox is being gored more pertinent than in the decision of Democrats to summarily shoot down a Republican bid in the House Judiciary Committee to have a congressional inquiry into the so-called Travelgate affair -- the suspension of seven employees in the White House travel office under unusual and suspicious circumstances.

The same is likely to be the fate of Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's request to Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel to look into the matter. The Democrats argue that the White House has already investigated itself and cleaned house and that two other investigations, by the Justice Department and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, are enough.

While it is certainly true that the White House's report on the matter was tough and candid, the punishments meted out to offending White House staffers were mild -- a reprimand and reassignment. The issue of improper use of the FBI in exploring the charges against those accused of misconduct was largely kissed off. And it seemed a bit premature to rule out a congressional investigation before it was seen what Justice and the GAO would come up with.

That was the position of Rep. Romano Mazzoli of Kentucky, the lone Democrat on the committee, who wanted to shelve the proposal for a congressional inquiry at least until the other two investigations were completed and reported upon. "It's not a mountain, but I don't think it's a molehill either," he says.

Unlike some other congressional inquiries in Republican administrations, Mr. Mazzoli says: "I don't think the fate of the presidency rests on this." But slamming the door on further examination of the episode is reminiscent of the stonewalling that came to be a trademark of GOP administrations -- in Watergate, in Iran-contra and other high-profile scandals.

Democrats were rightly outraged when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan turned to their attorneys general to provide cover for them in Watergate and Iran-contra. And they were quick to applaud the surprise appointment of an independent counsel to look into the allegations of Bush White House involvement in the illegal passport file searches of then Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton and his mother in the late stages of the 1992 campaign.

The crocodile tears of Mr. Dole and Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, leading the charge for further examinations into the travel office affair, are also a bit hard to take, after the way the Republicans over the years have whined about special prosecutors, from Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski to Lawrence Walsh, and worked to kill the legislation providing for an independent counsel that expired at the end of last year.

Even now, the independent counsel investigating the Clinton passport matter, Joseph diGenova, is said to be encountering obstructionist tactics from one of the Bush administration officials involved in the case.

Nevertheless, the Democrats are permitting themselves to look like stonewallers in this instance. Mr. Mazzoli is right in saying that the whole travel office business is no big deal, and certainly not in the class of Watergate and Iran-contra, in both cases affairs that raised prospects that impeachable offenses had been committed. The chief damage to President Clinton, so far anyway, was that the affair made his White House look incompetent, even silly.

Had the president, after his own White House investigation, simply fired those who acted improperly in the summary removal of seven longtime White House travel aides, the Republican argument for a further, bipartisan inquiry would have had far less resonance. Now Mr. Dole is accusing the Clinton White House of "slapping its own wrist" and of having put out a "sanitized report" on the affair.

The rule in any matter of alleged improper conduct ought to be simple and clear cut: The accused does not investigate himself. If the Democrats were on solid ground to insist during Watergate and Iran-contra that the Republicans not be left to ferret out their own guilt or innocence, the same should apply to them now that they are in office and faced with legitimate questions about their own conduct.

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