Just over a year ago, the independent counsel law - enacted in response to Watergate and an important part of our criminal justice system for 14 years - expired.
A bill to renew that law has passed the Senate and awaits House consideration. Two recent events have shown how necessary that law is to ensure public confidence in criminal investigations of high-level executive branch officials.Last week, the final report of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh in the Iran-Contra investigation was released to the public.
Some have criticized Walsh's investigation for taking too long and costing too much, but as the report reveals, the length of the investigation was in direct proportion to the scope of the allegations and the extent of the cover-up.
In the end, Walsh filed 14 indictments and got 11 convictions. There were no acquittals. Two of the three indictments that didn't lead to convictions were dismissed due to the pretrial pardons by then-President Bush; the other was dismissed due to the Justice Department's refusal to release needed classified information.
Two of the 11 convictions were overturned, not because of the defendants' innocence, but because of congressional grants of immunity (which, by the way, the independent counsel had asked Congress not to give).
But more important than the number of convictions is the measure of public confidence in the results. No one has accused Walsh (former president of the American Bar Association, former prosecutor, former diplomat, former deputy attorney general and former judge) of a whitewash or not trying hard enough to find out the facts.
The allegations associated with the Whitewater matter also demonstrate the value of the independent counsel law. The president has been unable to clear the air without the appointment of an outside prosecutor.
Had the independent counsel law been on the books this past year, the Whitewater allegations would have been handled routinely, in accordance with the requirements of the statute.
There would have been a clear road map with a specific timetable and standards (specific information from a credible source) for reviewing the allegations.
But without the law, there has been confusion about the options available to Attorney General Janet Reno, and she has been denied the opportunity to use the independent counsel law to determine whether to request a court-appointed independent counse.
Instead, she must appoint her own "independent" counsel. History suggests that, despite public pronouncements that she can select a qualified individual, no matter whom she picks, that person will enjoy less public confidence than if that same person had been selected by a court under the independent counsel law.
The Senate voted in November to put the independent counsel law back on the books, approving a bipartisan bill authored by myself and Senator Cohen. Now it is up to the House. For the good of the country, the House should act promptly and renew the law as soon as possible.