Burton's Request for Funds Stalls As Investigations Fatigue Hits GOP
Finance probe is pushed further into background by Clinton sex scandal; Gingrich, Hyde propose panel to make initial impeachment call
By Jackie Koszczuk and Dan Carney, CQ Staff Writers
Although the target is the White House they love to hate, congressional Republicans are beginning to suffer from investigations fatigue.
A House probe into campaign finance abuses focusing on Democratic President Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign is floundering, in the view of many GOP lawmakers. And now Republicans are struggling with how best to approach possible impeachment proceedings against Clinton in the aftermath of a sex scandal that has swamped his presidency -- a subject few lawmakers relish taking on.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who serves on the committee looking into campaign finance abuses, said, "There is not a soul here who wouldn't rather have the debate about the things we're investigating and not Monica Lewinsky and the president's sex life."
But recent events have left Republicans bereft of an ideal set of choices.
Over the past few weeks, the focus increasingly has shifted from the campaign finance scandal to the sex scandal, which makes even die-hard Clinton critics in the GOP uncomfortable.
With an independent counsel investigation of the president's alleged sexual encounters with women working in the White House gathering speed, Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., proposed on March 18 that a special House delegation be sent to review any material that counsel Kenneth Starr wants to refer to Congress.
The delegation would make an initial judgment about whether impeachment proceedings are warranted. Although the makeup of the group and the timing have yet to be decided, the mere hint of movement toward impeachment proceedings sparked a media frenzy and widespread discomfort among lawmakers.
At the same time, a request by Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., for an additional $2.5 million to continue the Government Reform and Oversight Committee's probe of campaign finance irregularities stalled after fellow Republicans complained the probe is producing meager results.
Gingrich, who controls a special committee investigations fund of $4.4 million, balked at giving Burton the money. The Speaker announced on March 19 that Hyde would get $1.3 million from the fund to probe a related issue: Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to appoint a special counsel to investigate alleged abuses, including large illegal donations from foreigners to Clinton's campaign. Burton's request was in limbo late in the week, and a Gingrich spokesman said only that a decision would come "soon."
Future of Probe in Doubt
Democrats have for months decried the House campaign finance probe as partisan, overly broad, unproductive and duplicative of one recently completed by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
Now that some Republicans have begun to share those views, the future of the House probe is in doubt.
"It's been very expensive, and it hasn't amounted to much," said a senior Republican leadership aide.
Souder blamed the lack of progress on potential witnesses who have left the country or invoked their right against self-incrimination. "We see ourselves as deadlocked, and at some point, there has to be an evaluation whether this is worth the money," he said.
Said Burton: "Everyone wants instant gratification in the television age. I think we will accomplish a lot, but it's not going to happen just like that."
The House investigation in a year's time has produced 13 hearings, many of them going over in finer detail issues already aired in last summer's Senate hearings. Although Burton vowed at the outset to focus on revealing the sources of foreign money that allegedly flowed from China, Taiwan and Indonesia to the Clinton campaign, little new information has been forthcoming.
Burton's investigators in fact are encountering the same difficulty producing concrete evidence of overseas connections as Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., did -- and then some.
According to Taiwanese press reports, five House investigators visiting Taiwan the week of March 16 sparked an uproar in the national legislature after a list of their interview targets was leaked to the country's press. On the list were several prominent Taiwanese politicians and business people. Several legislators assailed the foreign ministry for letting the U.S. delegation into the country and called the Americans a threat to Taiwan's judicial sovereignty.
To make matters worse, the House investigators were barred by the Chinese government from entering either Hong Kong or mainland China, stymieing their quest to trace bank records there. The Chinese embassy in Washington has also told the committee that records from the government-run Bank of China will not be released.
The escalating cost of the probe is the major concern of many Republicans. The committee is already the House's most well-endowed. It got $20 million in the 105th Congress, more than Commerce, which got $14.6 million, Transportation ($12.5 million) and Ways and Means ($11 million).
The House campaign finance probe has cost $5 million, according to the committee's Democratic staff (committee Republicans declined to release up-to-date spending figures). By comparison, Thompson's committee spent $3.5 million. And Burton's request for more money comes on the heels of an incident that rankled his colleagues. Last month, The Hill newspaper reported that Burton had approved generous raises for many of the staff on the investigation. Their pay increased two- or three-fold in some cases. Investigator David Bossie, a favorite of Burton's, was reported to be earning over $10,000 a month.
"The thing that killed [Burton] was the salaries and bonuses," said a senior GOP aide. "It was a shock."
Committee Democrats led by Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., complain that Burton is wasting money. They recently objected to subpoenas Burton issued to 11 state Democratic parties. The investigation, they say, is supposed to focus on the national party and contributions to the president's campaign.
The Justice Department in recent weeks has announced the arrests of several figures in the campaign finance scandal, most of them contributors who allegedly used straw donors to channel illegal donations to Clinton. But the House panel cannot claim much credit. The schemes were originally brought to the light by the Thompson probe.
A key development was the appointment March 19 of Washington trial lawyer Carol Elder Bruce as independent counsel to look into another incident uncovered by Thompson's committee: Whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was pressured by the White House to deny a casino gambling license to an Indian tribe because a rival tribe gave generously to Clinton.
Burton's committee, which also held hearings on the Indian casino issue, put out a press release claiming credit for being included as a footnote in court documents filed by Reno requesting appointment of the independent counsel.
"This has been the most expensive congressional investigation in history, and we have so little to show for it," Waxman said.
Several Republicans said they expect Burton to get some additional funding, though it may be a reduced amount and subject to conditions imposed by the leadership. For now, the House GOP leadership seems to have no way to gracefully end the probe, and may be inclined to keep it going on the off chance it strikes gold.
"I'm confident we'll get adequate funds to continue our investigation," Burton said.
Said Souder: "It's not clear that we can make the links that we need to make, but we have an obligation to keep trying."
Sex Scandal in Forefront
Pushing the House's campaign finance probe further into the background is the sex scandal, with its explosive allegations of Clinton's alleged affair with intern Monica Lewinsky and advances on former volunteer Kathleen Willey, who, during a period of personal financial crisis, had met with Clinton to ask for a paid position.
Hyde said that the main function of the congressional delegation would be to view Starr's material before it is turned over to Congress.
The statute creating Starr's office (PL 103-270) offers few specifics about impeachment referrals. It says nothing about how such a referral would be made, what form it would take, and whether it would include such things as secret grand jury testimony.
If he were to write a final report on his findings, a three-judge panel would decide what testimony could be made public. But an impeachment referral could bypass the judicial panel and would not be subject to limitations on content. And if the material went straight to the House Judiciary Committee, House rules say it must be given to all members.
"I haven't the foggiest idea what [Starr] is going to do," Hyde said. "Give us documents? Give us transcripts of grand jury testimony? . . . We have a concern [some material] might not be appropriate to release to the general public."
The special panel would not entirely replace the Judiciary Committee, which would still be the first committee that could vote on proposed articles of impeachment. But the panel would take over control, at least initially, of a decision not to impeach. It would decide, Hyde said, whether "there is merit to proceeding further."
Another leadership proposal -- for a select committee that would have more thoroughly supplanted the Judiciary Committee -- was rejected after it was floated early in the week.
A principal motivation behind the select committee, which aides said may have spilled over to the idea of an informal review panel, is that the Judiciary Committee is ill-equipped to deal with a political and public relations war with the White House. The committee has 36 members, and is loaded with first- and second-term members, mostly from the far right and far left. Its staff of 65 is small and more versed in such areas as civil asset forfeiture and digital copyright law than in playing a high-stakes political chess match.
Neither the members nor the staff would be a match for Clinton's spin doctors and political operatives, said one GOP aide. "They would eat them alive."
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