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A sorry retreat

The failure of Congress to reauthorize the Independent Counsel Act is a sorry retreat from an important principle _ that the highest officials of government are not above the law.

The counsel law, a major post-Watergate reform, will expire in December because the Senate buckled under the threat of filibuster by 28 Republicans. In a late-night session last week, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole announced there was not enough time before the Senate adjourned to debate such controversial legislation.

This time House Democrats were just as much the enemy, and they should be embarrassed. Rocked by their own ethics scandals and the electorate's general disgust, House members, including some who had been vocal supporters of the law, cooperated in its demise. Lawmakers were uneasy about proposed language that would have required Congress to be more specifically covered by the statute than it already was.

The law was a result of the 1973 "Saturday Night Massacre," when President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. In order to avoid such conflicts of interest, the law required an independent counsel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by high-ranking officials in the executive branch. Since then, 11 independent investigations have been conducted.

Over the years, Republicans have complained about the statute, saying it has been heavily directed at them and improperly citing the lengthy Iran-Contra investigation as example of its misuse. President Bush didn't like the law, either, vowing a veto. Justice Department opposition was legendary, because it deemed the law a usurpation of department power, an unsubstantiated objection.

The law's value should be clear to both parties; after all, it allowed former Attorney General Edwin Meese to clear his name without the suspicions that would have remained had his own Justice Department conducted the investigation.

The next Congress should honor the painful lessons learned from Watergate by reviving independent counsel.