WASHINGTON -- For the Democratic strategy to make the 1996 congressional elections a referendum on House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the unanimous decision of the House Ethics fTC Committee to appoint an outside counsel to investigate a single charge of improper conduct against him is a Christmas present delivered early.
Mr. Gingrich professes to be "pleased" with the action, inasmuch as the committee dropped all the other allegations against him with only a few gentle slaps on his wrist. But the fact that all five Republicans joined the five Democrats on the committee in calling in an independent ethics detective, who will look further into Mr. Gingrich's use of tax-deductible contributions to finance a college course he was teaching in Georgia, is certainly no grounds for pleasure.
Neither is the fact that the committee declared that Representative Gingrich had violated House rules in giving a political adviser use of his House office and in using the House floor to peddle tapes of his college lectures via an 800 telephone number.
The acquiescence of the five Republicans in the call for an outside counsel is particularly noteworthy in light of clear signs of vendetta by some Democrats in the whole ethics investigation against Mr. Gingrich.
House Minority Whip David Bonior especially seems bent on nailing Mr. Gingrich as a payback for Mr. Gingrich's leading role in ousting Democratic Speaker Jim Wright six years ago. The five Republicans obviously felt they could protect Mr. Gingrich only to a point, given the evidence against him on the one count to be investigated.
The Speaker of the House is hardly out of the woods, either, on newer allegations by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), which has filed critical documents in a civil suit suggesting potentially more serious offenses. While this matter has not been included in the outside counsel's mandate, the committee said it was "aware" of it and left the door open to extend the mandate later.
The FEC suit, against GOPAC, the Republican political action committee once headed by Mr. Gingrich, charges the group, ostensibly working to elect local and state candidates, actually supported congressional candidates in violation of federal law at the time. The documents also suggested Mr. Gingrich ran interference with federal environmental regulators for a GOP big contributor.
Mr. Gingrich immediately declared the FEC allegations "totally phony." But a 1990 letter has surfaced from the contributor to Mr. Gingrich including a $10,000 check for GOPAC, a reminder that he had already kicked in a total of $59,000, and a plea for help with federal asbestos regulations that were "costing my company millions and millions of dollars." Mr. Gingrich subsequently wrote the head of the Environmental Protection Agency about the matter, without mentioning the GOPAC donor directly.
The Democrats, especially Mr. Bonior, are certain to press the committee to include the issues raised in the FEC suit in the outside counsel's agenda. Several lawyers have already been interviewed for the job, most of them with tax-law experience in previous Republican administrations.
The political as well as the legal fallout can damage Mr. Gingrich and his party. Some Democrats credit their electoral successes last month in Kentucky and Virginia with linking GOP candidates to Mr. Gingrich and his social program budget-slashing in Congress.
Mr. Gingrich's rise as the dominant figure in Republican politics has been marked by a concomitant rise in his unpopularity. According to the latest Gallup poll for USA Today/CNN, voters surveyed disapproved, 62 percent to 19 percent, of how he is handling the budget negotiations. Democratic political strategists hope to tap into this remarkable disaffection of voters, many of whom approve of the Republican drive to balance the budget and reduce the size of the federal government but can't abide the highly partisan, sharp-tongued speaker.
Mr. Gingrich, however, is not the type to take cover in a fight. Although he has said again recently he will lower his profile, it's just not in him.
His style is to dismiss all allegations against him as mere partisan opposition by "liberal elite" has-beens who will do anything to detour his "revolution." But the five committee Republicans who voted for the outside counsel surely don't fit that description.
Just as Whitewater clings to President Clinton, the ethics charges cling to Congressman Gingrich, ensuring voters will hear much about both in the election year ahead.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.