WASHINGTON — The House probe of campaign fund-raising abuses has degenerated into the congressional equivalent of a roomful of unruly youngsters hurling schoolyard taunts.
It's the Democrats' fault. No, it's the Republicans' fault. Did not! Did so!
The multimillion-dollar investigation is distinguishing itself more for the intensity of its partisan clashes, which have been frequent, than for its revelations, which have been few and far between.
Last week, Democrats on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee exploded at Chairman Dan Burton's characterization of President Clinton as a "scumbag" and voted against granting immunity to four witnesses Republicans wanted to bring before the panel.
The fight continued this week during testimony from a convicted bank president who was released from prison for the day so that he could explain his connection to $50,000 in allegedly illegal Venezuelan contributions made in 1992.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), tired of seeing the inquiry extend further and further back in time, complained to Burton: "At this rate, Mr. Chairman, it will be sometime in June that I expect we'll be focusing on the 1960 campaign and taking testimony on whether President Kennedy stole the election."
Despite issuing a flurry of 600 subpoenas, committee investigators have largely run into dead end after dead end, the same fate that befell Whitewater sleuths before them. The media have largely moved on, and some Republicans who had regarded the donation scandal as their party's political battering ram now have lost interest in the complicated web of allegations.
"Barring some dramatic change, I think the Burton investigation is going to be remembered as a case study in how not to do a congressional investigation and as a prime example of investigation as farce," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
An increasingly frustrated Burton has urged Democrats to reverse themselves and endorse witness immunity when he brings the issue up again next week. To proceed, he needs the support of seven of them.
"If you don't like me, if you don't like my style, that's fine. I accept that," the Indiana Republican said. "But you're not punishing me; you're punishing the American people, who have a right to know."
Still, Democrats show little signs of backing down.
"There's no attempt to find truth here," complained Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.), one of the few lawmakers in either party to even attend this week's daylong hearing. "This is simply an attempt to throw as much mud at the president as possible."
The standoff has prompted House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has blasted the White House for obstruction, to propose moving a significant portion of the investigation to another committee. In the House Oversight Committee, headed by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), Republicans have a two-thirds majority, which would enable them to grant immunity to witnesses without support from Democratic members.
Burton, unable to crack the case of Asian money that flowed into Democratic Party coffers in 1996, has veered off in unexpected directions. He blames the numerous key figures who have snubbed his investigators.
"This committee has run into a stone wall of stalling and obstruction," he said.
To make his point, Burton aides erected a mock stone wall in the committee room last week featuring photographs of various officials who had invoked the 5th Amendment or not cooperated with investigators overseas.
Democrats, eager to needle Burton whenever they can, dismissed the display as something more appropriate for a grade-school classroom.
Gingrich has complained that Waxman and his cohorts have no interest in getting at the truth, contrasting the ranking Democrat's performance with the bipartisanship exhibited by then-congressman Howard H. Baker Jr. during Watergate.
Waxman's sharp rebuttal: He may be no Howard Baker but Burton is no Sam Ervin, the fair-minded Watergate chairman.
Even the price-tag of the investigation is in dispute. Republicans say they have spent somewhere around $3 million to date, while Democrats have estimated the real cost as double that.
Waxman called the probe "the most expensive investigation in congressional history and the one that has produced the least new information," a shot that prompted Republicans to produce records showing that numerous congressional probes have been more expensive than Burton's.
On Thursday, convicted felon Jorge Castro Barredo had a front-row seat for the action.
After Castro Barredo laid out a scheme in which a Miami attorney allegedly arranged $50,000 in illegal contributions to the Democrats in 1992, Waxman sought to impeach his truthfulness.
Castro Barredo, serving time in a New York state prison for looting a family-owned bank, acknowledged that he agreed to testify only after Burton agreed to write a letter that would aid him in obtaining a work release.
"It seems to me that this is a very odd hearing to be held," Waxman said.
"When [Democrats] pooh-pooh this investigation, it bothers me greatly," Burton replied.
The attorney that Castro Barredo blamed, Charles A. Intriago, declined to testify before the panel. Instead, like so many potential witnesses before him, his attorney sent a letter denying the allegations and lamenting the fact that Intriago had been "unwillingly drawn into a nasty and vindictive political conflict."
As with most committee discussions, the matter remained unresolved as Castro Barredo was escorted by U.S. marshals back to the comparative calm of prison.