The Magazine


Oct 5, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 04 • By TOD LINDBERG
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This issue is worth a little alternative-universe exploration. Suppose there were no independent counsel statute, yet events had unfolded in Paula Jones's lawsuit against the president in precisely the same fashion. Suppose, that is, that Linda Tripp had taken her Monica tapes to the Justice Department and the media. Or that she had dropped them off at Chairman Henry Hyde's office at the House Judiciary Committee. Would we be where we are today?

Insofar as presidential lying under oath is serious, and so is cooking your story to obstruct justice in a civil case, we should be, and maybe we would be. But if we were, it would be as a result of an extensive, messy, vitriolic fact-finding inquiry by the Judiciary Committee. The White House, and presumably congressional Democrats, would have resisted it at every turn and raised holy hell over it in the process. Republicans would have needed to make an unprecedented show of political grit.

The independent-counsel law relieved them of that burden. In doing so, however, the law also deprived them of a certain trial by fire that would, at a minimum, have given them a keen sense of responsibility for advancing the process. Had Republicans pushed the inquiry on their own to the point at which it now stands, there would be little doubt among Democrats about Republicans' determination to see it through. That doubt is the Democrats' principal consolation at the moment.

It may or may not amount to much. But it seems fair to observe that the independent-counsel law is either one of the greatest congressional power grabs in history -- a shortcut to impeachment, Congress's gravest constitutional responsibility, as it keeps reminding us -- or a cautionary tale about what happens when you don't touch first base on the way home.

Tod Lindberg is editorial-page editor of the Washington Times.