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Governing by investigation?

Impeachment mire raises question of how effectively Congress governs

My guess is that Speaker Newt Gingrich would have thought twice about pushing through an impeachment inquiry had he foreseen the Nov. 3 election outcome, revealing a public tired of the scandal.

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But now, stuck with it, the House Judiciary Committee slogs its way toward a partisan vote on articles of impeachment that face a dim future in the House and certain doom in the Senate. Maybe there will be a heaven-sent rescue in the form of a consensus rebuke to the president for his behavior.

The impeachment inquiry may have done some harm to the president's prestige, but it has also damaged the prestige of Congress. It has raised the perennial issue of how effective Congress can be in dealing with difficult problems of governing.

In 1955, during the Joseph McCarthy era, civil libertarian Alan Barth wrote a book called "Government by Investigation." He argued that "the most ruthless form of tyranny is legislative tyranny," and since legislators accept no individual responsibility, the result can be "the most reckless form of collective irresponsibility."

One looks at the way Congress has tried to deal with scandals of this era. Watergate provided the impetus for campaign funding reform, which gave us the innovation of "soft money," vastly expanding the abuse of money in politics. Senate and House investigations of Clinton campaign funding have accomplished little other than disputes with the administration about lack of cooperation. Watergate also led to the concept of special prosecutor, later independent counsel, meant to relieve the attorney general of possible conflict of interest in investigating high administration officials. That has given us an institution spreading across all three branches of government and basically accountable to none. It has given us, aside from Kenneth Starr's $40 million pursuit of the president, the naming of prosecutors to investigate such petty offenses by cabinet officers as understating payments to an ex-mistress and accepting free football tickets. Attorney General Janet Reno has found the Independent Counsel Act not a relief, but an enormous burden.

All that money and all that energy diverted from legislation to government by investigation.

In the words of Walter Lippman, columnist of another era, "Since it is impossible for assemblies to govern a country, they exercise their usurped power by preventing the Executive from governing."

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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