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Arms Debacle Puts Congress in a Catbird Seat for Next Two Years

December 14, 1986|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — Members of the new Congress came to town last week for what were supposed to be routine organizational meetings. Instead, they became enmeshed in dramatic confrontations with current and past Reagan Administration officials responsible for the arms-to-Iran affair. The preliminary hearings provided few spicy incidents or added clues for unraveling the mystery of who knew what and when. But if the Watergate-like atmosphere of those nationally televised sessions is an indicator, 1987 should be a Capitol Hill barn-burner.

All the elements are in place for a classic investigation: the Reagan Administration's foreign policy in apparent disarray in the Mideast and Central America, new Democratic leaders out to pinpoint responsibility and to make their own mark, hostile lawyers trying to save the skins of vulnerable clients and, ultimately, a President who suddenly looks far less threatening on Capitol Hill, whose own responsibility is the main focal point of the inquisitors.

"Either President Reagan knew what was going on in his Administration or he did not know," said Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), a House Foreign Affairs Committee member who was among those most actively pushing witnesses to the heart of the story. "Neither finding will be good for the President."

The legislative impact is certain to be deep, no matter what happens next. The House and Senate--scheduled to convene on Jan. 6, following a nearly three-month recess--have already become so preoccupied by events related to the arms deal that the hopes of incoming Democratic congressional leaders, for an early start on their own agenda, have been derailed.

The post-election period was planned as a time to organize next year's strategies by incoming House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). Issues like trade, agriculture, arms control and the federal budget were all parts of the Democrats' campaign attack on the six-year Republican record. These problems have largely been set aside now so that Democratic leaders can concentrate on their response to the White House mess. The leaders have voiced some frustration with the diversions; they want to refocus attention on legislative priorities, if only to show that they are addressing business as usual.

Meanwhile, many questions remain unresolved on how Congress will handle the Iran- contra inquiry. Among them are the overlap between the special House and Senate committees created to investigate the scandal, the role of other congressional committees that have already launched reviews and the relationship of these panels to the independent counsel charged with identifying and prosecuting possible criminal violations.

The fact that eager members of both parties have been tripping over each other to get into the act, even before the selection of chairmen and members for the special committees, leaves no doubt that they expect a big story for months to come, with many more tales of intrigue certain to be revealed. As a savvy Democratic aide noted, Reagan cannot avoid prolonged inquiries because "the toothpaste is out of the tube."

Certain aspects of the investigation are coming into focus. One vital factor: The scope will be more narrow than the Senate's much-ballyhooed 1973 Watergate hearings. In that case, because many months had passed while Nixon Administration loyalists lied or stonewalled, the committee wanted to discover who was responsible for the misdeeds; in the current affair, the main concern in Congress is less with possible criminal wrongdoing than with management of the White House and U.S. foreign policy.

Because the independent counsel will soon be set up and mandated to uncover crimes, if any, the job of the special House and Senate committees will apparently be to tell the whole story of what happened and to recommend steps to avoid such problems in the future. In doing so, those committees and others in Congress will examine Administration policies and the method by which it addresses problems.

But last week's extraordinary business--active-duty military officers asserting Fifth Amendment constitutional protection against self-incrimination--indicates that Congress may have trouble ahead. The silence of Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, Reagan's former national security adviser, and his aide, Marine Lt. Col Oliver L. North, recently removed from the White House staff, raised the question of whether they may seek immunity from prosecution before agreeing to tell their stories.

Regardless of how much Congress learns, considerable damage has already been done to Reagan policies. The recent comment by the new House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) that prospects for future aid to the contras are "very slim" reflects a widely held view among lawmakers. Steps to prevent future rogue operations by White House aides are also in the wind.

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