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Los Angeles Times Interview

Zoe Lofgren

Impeachment Insider Winning Battle to Reform a Partisan Process

October 25, 1998|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of "Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt."

WASHINGTON — Next month, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives will begin hearings on whether to recommend that President Bill Clinton be impeached. Initially, the committee voted for an essentially unrestricted inquiry, one that might run for months, include subjects unmentioned in the infamous Starr report and even force Monica S. Lewinsky to reenact her grand-jury testimony in what would surely be an excruciating nationally televised spectacle. Last week, however, committee leaders retreated toward a plan for more limited hearings. Now, it appears likely that only the charges against Clinton will be consolidated, the inquiry will have an end-of-the-year time limit and Lewinsky will not testify. Polls continue to show the public's dissatisfaction with Congress' handling of the scandal investigation, and observers assume that House Republicans are now streamlining inquiry plans in order to blunt the perception of partisan overkill.

This means that Rep. Zoe Lofgren's position is winning. Lofgren, a Northern California Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, has argued for streamlined hearings since the House decided to debate impeachment. Last month, Lofgren joined other Judiciary Committee Democrats in calling for an inquiry that would be rapid and tightly focused on legal questions, not lascivious sexual details.

Lofgren, who represents the district around San Jose, is a 50-year-old attorney who as a law student at Santa Clara University outside San Jose served on the staff of now-retired Rep. Don Edwards. From this position she helped Edwards, who was also a Judiciary Committee member, to prepare for the 1974 impeachment hearings against President Richard M. Nixon. Later, Lofgren became a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and in 1994 she ran for Congress, winning the seat Edwards once held.

As a congresswoman, Lofgren has specialized in intellectual-property rights, a keenly felt issue for a district adjoining Silicon Valley, while taking mainly liberal stands on such issues as abortion, environmental protection and children's rights. Lately, she has been handing out to House colleagues a 1974 Judiciary Committee report on the history of impeachment law that supports the idea that only grave offenses are grounds for removal from office.

Born in Palo Alto, Lofgren has two children and describes herself as "a boring, middle-aged woman who's been married for 20 years to the same man." Her demeanor is slightly professorial. Lofgren spoke to the Times in her Washington office.

Question: Is it now certain that the Judiciary Committee's Republican leadership will move in your direction, toward a streamlined hearing?

Answer: The committee leadership tells [committee Democrats] so little, we find things out by watching CNN. [Last week] committee Chairman Henry Hyde issued a press release to clarify reports that he would pare down the hearings, but he certainly didn't send any of the Democrats a copy. I hope that our argument for streamlining the hearings will eventually be accepted. But what Chairman Hyde does not appear to be doing is preparing for the necessary first step of constitutional arguments about what constitutes an impeachable offense. That is the most important first question, and right now it's not on the committee table at all.

Q: You have said that on constitutional grounds, only grave offenses can justify impeachment. Why?

A: The question is what George Mason and James Madison thought they were doing back there in September of 1787 [when they wrote the Constitution's impeachment clause]. If you look at the evolution of their drafts, it's pretty clear that the intention of the founders was that an impeachable "high crime or misdemeanor" means conduct that destroys the constitutional form of government. What this means is the gist of the issue here. I don't understand why the majority on the committee would not want to address that issue as soon as possible, rather than delaying the constitutional issue.

Q: Some committee members have said they want to hold evidentiary hearings--put people on the stand to be grilled about basic facts--even though there are already thousands of pages of facts in the Starr report. Will this happen?

A: Some of the Republicans have been saying that the Democrats will want to put Monica Lewinsky on the stand to assess her credibility. Not us, we don't have a witness list. I don't see why anyone would want to put her, or the country, through that. After all we've already heard from Monica, to sit listening to her testify would be like fingernails on the blackboard.

Q: If hearings turn into a free-for-all, isn't it inevitable that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will be called and roasted?

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