Another Independent Counsel


The only way to balance the federal budget is to move the independent counsels' expenses off-budget. Pardon our being flip, but this is getting ridiculous. There will soon be four -- count 'em -- four independent counsels probing "credible" allegations of federal law violations involving President and Mrs. Clinton, two members of the cabinet and one ex-member. (And two independent counsels are investigating members of the the Reagan and Bush administrations.)

The latest target is Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. He was, among other things, involved in a smelly arrangement that resulted in his being paid half a million dollars for his stake in a company in which he invested nothing and which made no profits -- but may have been used to siphon profits from another entity whose default on insured loans cost U.S. taxpayers $40 million.

We prefer to see criminal inquiries handled the old-fashioned way -- by U.S. attorneys and the Justice Department. Independent counsels are too independent, and they can abuse their power. Some have. Even more pernicious an effect of independent counsels is that they call into question the Justice Department's professionalism and integrity. As Elliott Richardson, who appointed the first modern independent counsel, recently wrote, appointing these officials sends a message the department can't conduct an impartial investigation. "Trust in government would be enhanced and the spread of suspicion diminished if the nation had greater confidence in the department," he wrote.

Attorney General Janet Reno listed as off-limits some aspects of Mr. Brown's dealings that have been the subject of congressional inquiry but not hearings. Hearings should be held, if they would not compromise Mr. Brown's legal rights.

Perfectly legal "influence peddling," as deriders call it, and some not-so-legal conflicts of interest may be involved. These are the sorts of things that go on all the time in Washington, and a good airing of them by Congress may lead a public unhappy with "Washington" to demand some different rules, procedures and laws.

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