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Airing impeachment process may be fatal GOP choice

SHARE Airing impeachment process may be fatal GOP choice

IN RECENT DAYS parallels have been drawn between the House Judiciary Committee's deliberations over a possible impeachment inquiry and the deliberations by the same committee when it began impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon in 1974.

But the differences are more striking than the similarities, since the proceeding exemplified sharply different approaches to the problem of how Congress should investigate a president.In Watergate, Congress followed a classic representative model of government. The authority to make decisions was delegated to elected representatives, who deliberated among themselves and then acted on behalf of the voters.

The proceedings were thus begun in relative secrecy. The evidence that came to the Judiciary Committee from Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor, was kept under lock and key. So was the grand jury evidence, which remains secret to this day. While the committee regularly informed the public about its progress, its specific deliberations were carried out, for the most part, behind closed doors.

This approach had distinct advantages. Committee members were more apt to weight the evidence and less likely to play to the cameras or their constituents. The members also built a consensus that cut across party lines. Only after the committee decided to consider articles of impeachment against Nixon were the deliberations opened to the public, and only then was the evidence and the reasoning behind the committee's judgment aired for citizens to consider.

During the Watergate crisis, leaders in both parties recognized that there were partisan divisions within the Judiciary Committee that could easily harden. They knew too that a presidential impeachment inquiry conducted by a divided Congress could be destructive to the country.

Going into the House inquiry, about one-third of the country believed Nixon was being persecuted for partisan reasons and that his adversaries' true motive was to reverse the results of the 1972 election. Many others just wanted the headache to go away.

Only through the lengthy deliberative process was a bipartisan consensus forged, convincing most of these Americans that the impeachment inquiry was both legitimate and appropriate.

The process in the Clinton case has been very different, so far. It exemplifies a plebiscitary model, one where representatives first gauge public views and then reflect them.

Consider how nearly all the material provided to the House by Kenneth Starr, including grand jury material, was made public or soon will be, even before committee members had examined it themselves or held a preliminary inquiry.

Why do this? The rationale of the current House is that the public has a first right to all the information. The voters' judgments can then be made simultaneously with their representatives, or even before.

Of course, politics plays a part too. Initially, the House set a deadline of Sept. 28 for the release of the information submitted by Starr. But well before that fast-track deadline was reached, the Republican majority on the Judiciary Committee voted to release prematurely the president's videotaped grand jury testimony. The aim was to ensure that the videotape would be showcased nationally and damage the president.

That tactic failed. But having decided to make the process public, congressional Republicans could not now change their approach simply because the public reacted in an unexpected and undesired way.

The Republicans may further regret their decision to open up the process prematurely. If there can be no closed-door hearings or secret votes, the president's defenders may well be able to call their own witnesses, including Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, Richard Mellon Scaife and others whose testimony might prove far more embarrassing to the Republicans than to Clinton.

Of course, the plebiscitary gamble might yet pay off. Voters outside the Beltway may eventually shift their allegiances away from the president. Even if they don't, the November election returns may give the Republicans enough of an advantage to override popular opinion. But a decision to live by the public opinion sword means that one can die by the public opinion sword.

That political danger is a real one for Republicans. The greater danger is that in the end a large share of Americans will be left convinced that the decision was not a legitimate one.