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Senate compromises its own proceeding; Closed doors: Secrecy fails to hide indecision in GOP ranks, distracts from outcome.


THE SENATE has been so determined to show bipartisanship and dignity in its trial of President Clinton that it has failed to give adequate priority to getting the verdict right. For the nation, the people and future events, that should be its main focus.

Misplaced priorities produced the dismal secret debate Monday and yesterday on a simple resolution to dismiss the trial. Preoccupation with appearances wound up tarnishing the Senate.

That led to yesterday's Senate grandstanding. As President Clinton greeted Pope John Paul II in St. Louis, House managers appeared before the Senate seeking his deposition and that of three witnesses. Like the House grilling of witness Monica Lewinsky, this seemed to be a calculated effort to spice up proceedings, to make it more politically difficult for the Senate to end the matter.

The grand jury that was supposed to have been secret was made public for political purposes by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde. To compensate, the trial that is supposed to be public was sent behind closed doors.

Up to a point, this might be reasonable. Some parts of a public trial are secret, such as lawyers' conferences with the judge and the jury deliberation. As a political reality, Republican and Democratic caucuses have been meeting and sending representatives to seek agreement on procedure.

But Monday's plenary session was presided over by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who ordered the sergeant-at-arms to close the doors. It became a Star (with one r) Chamber, just what an impeachment trial should not be.

The root cause was indecision in Senate Republican ranks. The Democrats have a clear endgame, as do House managers. Senate Republicans, though, are dithering.

A portion, who along with Democrats would be decisive, agree that his behavior, though despicable, does not justify removing the elected president from office. But most don't want to be viewed by partisan supporters as belittling the House Republican case.

The Constitution provides no easy middle ground. It tells senators to remove the president or acquit him. If there are crimes to be prosecuted for punishment, that process is for Mr. Starr and the courts.

It is regrettable that Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes voted on Monday for secrecy on the debate about dismissal. He wisely reversed himself on Tuesday.

This trial will be brought to a conclusion when a majority of senators discuss in public and vote for the good of the country. They should base their actions on the Constitution, not on a preoccupation with appearances.

Two governors?

Schaefer: Former governor, as new state comptroller, charts agenda that may clash with Glendening's.

MARYLAND has never had an activist state comptroller before. It does now.

On Monday, William Donald Schaefer, the former two-term governor and four-term Baltimore mayor, was sworn in as state comptroller before a giant crowd in the House of Delegates chambers. Today, he begins what should be a fascinating cohabitation in the Annapolis power structure with his successor as chief executive, Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Yes, the weekly Board of Public Works meetings should be lively with two governors on the three-member panel. While Mr. Schaefer said in his inaugural speech that he doesn't intend to upstage the governor, he set out an ambitious agenda that surely sounded gubernatorial.

Especially on matters of economic development, the new comptroller indicated an eagerness to jump into areas that are in the governor's orbit. Remember, the comptroller doesn't control budget allocations or set priorities -- the governor and legislators take care of that.

As a cheerleader for job growth and a better business climate, Mr. Schaefer can make a sizable contribution. Maryland has no bigger booster than the new comptroller. That is following in the tradition of the late Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. But on most other matters, it's the governor who is in charge, not the collector of tax revenues.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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