From Watergate to Whitewater: History of the independent counsel
Act has a 21-year tradition of controversy
June 30, 1999
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT)
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, June 30) -- Blame Richard Nixon, if you like, for the birth of the independent counsel. Blame Ken Starr, if you choose, for its death. From Watergate to Whitewater, the Independent Counsel Act has prompted 21 special investigations and 21 years of controversy.
The events surrounding the Watergate scandal and subsequent investigation convinced legislators that the executive branch cannot be trusted to impartially enforce laws against itself.
Congress' efforts to work out a better solution resulted in five years of heated debates and more than 35 different proposals. Lawmakers finally settled on an independent judicially appointed prosecutor and the proviso was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on Oct. 26,1978.
The Independent Counsel Act instructed the attorney general to request an outside prosecutor in cases involving high government officials where the "personal, financial, or political conflict of interest" is too great.
Since then, 21 special investigations have been launched, with seven leading to convictions and five still active. The total cost passed $166 million through the last fiscal year.
Although it was found constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1988, the independent counsel statute has long been a source dissatisfaction for both Republicans and Democrats.
Congress' frosty regard for the law began in the 1980s. Republicans were the first to complain of the law's abuse during Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's seven-year Iran-Contra investigation, which culminated in a report released three days before the 1992 presidential election.
The controversy prompted Congress to let the law lapse for 18 months during the early 1990s.
Ironically, it was President Bill Clinton who successfully campaigned for the statute's renewal in 1994, ignoring the advice of his predecessor, President George Bush, to let the law stay lapsed. Clinton signed the bill into law even though the Justice Department already had appointed a special counsel to investigate his Whitewater land dealings in Arkansas.
The move has not served Clinton well. He has since found five of his cabinet members, another aide and himself and his wife the subject of independent counsel probes.
It was Independent Counsel Ken Starr's investigation of the Whitewater land deal and its spawn -- Travelgate, FBI files kept at the White House, and Monica Lewinsky -- that proved the final straw for the statute.
With the congressional impeachment proceedings against Clinton resulting from the Lewinsky investigation, it was the Democrats' turn to rail against the independent counsel law, pointing to the fact that special investigations have no limits on cost, length and scope, and saying Starr was far overzealous in pursuing the Clintons.
This spring, as Congress held hearings to consider whether to allow the law to expire, both Starr and Attorney General Janet Reno recommended just that course of action.
And without congressional action, the law will do so at midnight on June 30.
Now responsibility for investigating official misconduct reverts back to the Justice Department where it was during Watergate and before. The attorney general will have the power to both hire and fire special counsels.