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Putting Partisan Bickering Aside: Impeachment Inquiry Should Be Fair, Swift, and Nonpartisan

Michael J. Ring

For better or for worse, the House Judiciary Committee will proceed with an impeachment inquiry against William Jefferson Clinton. For only the third time in history, the President of the United States will be subjected to a congressional investigation whose ultimate result may be the removal of the president from his office.

It remains to be seen whether the evidence gathered first by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, and now the House Judiciary Committee, will be grounds for impeachment. Most people agree the evidence is currently not there. Clinton's alleged crimes are less serious than those of Nixon, and there are still questions of whether his testimony in the Paula Jones case was immaterial or "legally accurate" and thus did not constitute perjury. There is a nearly universal recognition that Clinton is a smooth operator without a shred of moral fiber, but that alone does not constitute grounds for impeachment. However, that is not to say that further allegations could arise in the Judiciary Committee proceedings that would damn Clinton. We will all have to wait and see.

Hopefully that wait will not be too long. After a long journey of five years of seeing this man raked over the coals, and having trudged through Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, Chinagate, and now Interngate, we are finally going to have closure over the inquisition of President Clinton. The President and the nation deserve a speedy process.

As much as President Clinton and we should demand a quick set of hearings, so too do we deserve a fair set of hearings. Any member of the Judiciary Committee who has preconceived notions of Clinton's innocence or guilt should not be serving on that panel. We as citizens also must be ready to evaluate, and perhaps change, our own opinion of the need for impeachment as the hearings unfold. The members of the House of Representatives and the voters of America must be prepared to shed any prior opinions as we enter this most sensitive and difficult time for our nation. We must all pressure the House to conduct its business in a swift and impartial manner.

I am pleased with the "New Year's Resolution" of House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). The chairman promises he will attempt to conclude these impeachment hearings in this Congress, before the new Congress sits on Jan. 3, 1999.

If Hyde keeps his word, the president and the nation will be spared a protracted, partisan process. A prolonged inquiry is in the best interests of no one: after months and months of hearings the mood on Capitol Hill would inevitably turn sour and confrontational. The element of fairness which we must demand so loudly would be lost.

A nonpartisan process will be much harder to obtain. The radical extremists in the Republican Party have been salivating for months over the prospect of an impeachment inquiry. They are ready to launch a witch hunt, serve as judge, jury, and executioner, and burn Bill Clinton at the stake. It will take a tremendous, united effort from both the House leadership and the rank-and-file members of the House to seize the agenda from these loons.

Furthermore, we have still yet to see how Hyde will insure these hearings will be nonpartisan. Most of the Judiciary Committee's decisions in this affair have fallen along partisan lines. The decision to release the president's videotaped testimony, for example, drew howls from Democrats rightly complaining such a hasty release would be unfair to the president. The vote to open an impeachment inquiry itself also fell along party lines. All Republicans voting and 31 Democrats, most of them in tough re-election battles in conservative-leaning districts, chose to open the inquiry. One-hundred seventy-five Democrats and the House's lone independent voted against opening these hearings. Not a single Republican joined in their sentiments. As there is not broad, bipartisan support for these hearings, Hyde must reassure Democrats the Committee will not be embarking upon a witchhunt if this process is to continue in a fair and timely matter.

In light of this House's investigation and punishment of one of its own, the Clinton proceedings to date wreak of unjust, partisan influence. Remember, Newt Gingrich himself was hit with ethics accusations a few years back. His campaign finances were investigated for, among other things, whether he received illegal gifts or contributions from the political action committee he headed, and whether the speaker used tax-deductible charitable contributions to support a college class he was teaching. In the investigation process Gingrich lied to an investigating committee, and he later admitted his testimony was false.

The process with which these violations was dealt was slow. The preliminary report of the independent counsel in this case was not released to the public, and the release of his final report was delayed so that Gingrich had time to mount a defense. Compare this with the mad rush shown by members of Congress to throw evidence against Clinton into the public arena without giving the president any time to review the charges. For his serious transgressions, Gingrich received only a slap on the wrist: a reprimand which allowed him to remain in the speaker's chair, and a fine of $300,000. Yet many of the same congressmen who felt the penalty against Gingrich was too harsh now hope to see Clinton impeached.

The charges against Gingrich were much more serious than those against Clinton. Gingrich's transgressions stemmed from campaign finance abuse and showed a serious disrespect for the American political process. Clinton's alleged crimes flow from a private affair, in which the president showed disrespect for his wife but not the nation at large. Gingrich admitted to false testimony; Clinton holds to the position that his testimony did not constitute perjury. In the absence of solid proof of perjury by Clinton or new, more serious charges, his penalty should be less than that of Gingrich.

I do not consider myself a Clinton apologist; in fact, I do not really care for many of his political stands. I am a New Dealer, and his policies on such issues as welfare and "free" trade have angered myself and many Democrats. But Clinton deserves a fair impeachment process, and he deserves to remain in office unless evidence of "high crimes and misdemeanors" is produced. If that evidence arises I will call vocally for Clinton's impeachment and other Americans should do the same. But the evidence is not there now. However disgraced this president may be, he should still be entitled to the duties and the benefits of his office, free of undue partisan harassment.