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Independent counsels' last case?

Amid criticism of Starr's investigation, Congress will likely let theIndependent Counsel Act expire.

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Amid widespread criticism surrounding the high-profile investigation of President Clinton by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, sentiment is growing in Congress to allow the 20-year-old independent counsel statute to expire.

The prospect of abandoning the law in June raises important questions of how investigations of high-level executive branch officials will be carried out in the future.

"If we don't reauthorize it, there will come another Watergate or Iran-contra," and the law "would be replaced in one fashion or another by something else," says John Douglass, a University of Richmond law professor and former independent counsel lawyer.

As Senate hearings on the statute opened yesterday, experts and senators from both parties attacked the Watergate-inspired law as costly, ineffective, and overly broad. The law has been detrimental to its goal of better government ethics, they said.

"I long ago concluded that this statute is unworkable ... and represents very poor governmental policy," former Attorney General Griffin Bell told hearings before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

There is "a growing feeling" among Senate Republicans and Democrats "that the law ought to expire," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

"The Independent Counsel Act, while well intended, has been a failure," agreed Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, noting that the law has cost $150 million for 20 investigations, most of which returned no indictments.

Even backers of the law indicate that its prospects for reauthorization are dim. "There is not a whole lot of support right now out there for it," says an aide for Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who favors revising the statute.

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