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The most serious casualty: comity on Capitol Hill

During the House Judiciary Committee's deliberations on impeachment, it was frequently said that this is Congress's most awesome responsibility next to declaring war. Little did the members suspect that they might have the chance to weigh both the same week.

This highlights the incongruity of the weekend just past, when the House supported US forces in the Persian Gulf on Thursday and impeached the commander in chief who sent them there on Saturday. The incongruity in turn highlights the bitter partisanship that poisons almost everything Congress does.

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Republicans immediately suggested that President Clinton initiated the action against Iraq less as punishment for noncooperation with UN weapons inspectors than as a diversion from the impending vote on impeachment.

The critics did not address the president's other options for dealing with repeated Iraqi defiance of the United Nations. He had already backed down three times in the face of Iraqi challenges and had been severely (and justifiably) criticized for it. Would critics have preferred that the president embarrass the United States once again by accepting another humiliation?

The manic drive for impeachment was itself a display of political bitterness - one could almost say hatred. This was widely observed on television over the weekend. The impeachment process was driven, less by anything the president did, than by a determination that he must be replaced for ideological reasons. Provision for impeachment was put into the Constitution as a safeguard against subversive presidents. In this case, the subversives are those who are using impeachment as a means to get rid of a president they do not like.

Much was said and written about what is an impeachable offense. As a practical matter, an impeachable offense is whatever the House of Representatives says it is. The question is what the House ought to say. The House has now said the standard is a series of reprehensible attempts to conceal a series of even more reprehensible, but personal, acts with no bearing on the government. The pettiness of these grounds indicates the desperation of the drive to depose the president. The House leadership was afraid, with some reason, that the drive would falter if the House were presented with a reasonable alternative. So the leadership arrogantly announced that no vote would be allowed on a censure resolution, and its handpicked speaker pro tem upheld this position in a strained, convoluted ruling. These are the same people who accuse Clinton of an abuse of power. In the end, the House rejected two of the four articles of impeachment even without the censure alternative.

A theme throughout the debate was that impeachment was not a definitive judgment but simply a referral to the Senate. This told undecided members that they could vote for impeachment and then rely on the Senate not to convict. There is a long history of irresponsible votes in the House cast in the hope that the Senate would undo them. In this case, House leaders feared, probably with reason, that the Senate would indeed undo their work. Hence the calls for the president to resign before the matter comes to a Senate trial.

Questions remain. What will be the end result of the attacks on Iraq? They were required for the sake of what's left of US credibility abroad, but will they really change anything in Iraq? And if they don't, what do we do next?

What will be the result of impeachment, regardless of whether it is followed by conviction? The poisonous atmosphere on Capitol Hill has already brought about the resignation of the Speaker-designate of the House, a man widely respected in both parties. The bitterness in Congress is too deep to go away quickly or easily. It is matched by bitterness in the White House that is likely to linger as long as the White House and Congress are controlled by different parties.

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The real loser in this process is the spirit of comity that once prevailed on Capitol Hill. The dictionary defines comity as "mutual courtesy, civility." Mild terms, not much in use lately, but they used to be taken for granted as instinctive guides to relationships in Congress. Comity keeps strong differences of opinion from getting out of control. It keeps personal dislikes from interfering with the functioning of the government. Comity is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, but it is what makes the Constitution work. It is what makes democracy work. The erosion of comity did not begin with, but was accelerated by, Republican dislike of an irresponsible president. If that erosion is not reversed, it will be a greater threat to our political life than the misbehavior in the White House or the arrogance of a third-world dictator.

* Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs from Arlington, Va.

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