WASHINGTON – Saying that no one knows better about presidential pardons than Bill Clinton, Rep. Lamar Smith has asked the former president if he has a schedule opening on Thursday to chat with lawmakers about his expertise on the matter.
Smith has invited Clinton as his expert witness at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on executive branch authority to issue pardons. The question over the use of pardons has come up with the recent conviction of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan has been outspoken on his feelings that Libby should not be pardoned. The Subcommittee on Crime, Terror and Homeland Security convened a hearing as a result.
Clinton was embroiled in controversy over pardons he issued on his last day in office more than six years ago, but the latest debate has Smith, the top-ranked Republican on the committee, calling the hearing nothing more than partisan politics aimed at President Bush.
"The Judiciary Committee should focus its energy on issues Americans care about — reducing crime, stopping illegal immigration and fighting terrorism — not harassing a president for partisan political purposes," said Smith, referring to the current administration in a statement released to FOXNews.com.
Last week the Judiciary Committee was at the center of another partisan battle when Democrats cast a voice vote to authorize Conyers to issue subpoenas in the widening probe over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. No committee Republicans voted for the measure.
Smith spokeswoman Beth McGinn said the letter to Clinton was in response to an onslaught of partisan investigations into executive branch powers. Another upcoming hearing will be looking into the reach of executive privilege, which is the broad claim of separation of powers between Congress and the White House used to fend off congressional probes.
The definition of executive privilege could become a constitutional confrontation if the U.S. attorney firings issue ends up in court — something that could happen if subpoenas are issued.
In his letter to Clinton, Smith wrote that Thursday's hearing is an opportune time to hear testimony from someone else intimately involved in the pardon process: the former president.
On his last day in office, Clinton issued more than 100 clemency orders, many of which were for controversial figures. The pardon for Marc Rich was the biggest political lightning rod; at the time he was eluding capture in Europe in a federal racketeering and fraud case stemming from the early 1980s, and he was being investigated for campaign finance activities connected to the Clinton White House.
"You are no stranger to controversial pardons, most notably the pardon of Marc Rich on your last day in office," Smith wrote in the letter faxed to Clinton's Harlem office. "I can think of no better person than you to speak on this issue. I believe your experience with exercising the pardon authority and defending it from intrusion by Congress would be invaluable."
The letter is a preliminary request for Clinton's availability. Due to the Democratic majority in Congress, Democrats control the witness list for Thursday's hearing, but Republicans are allowed one witness. Should Clinton make himself available, Democrats would have to allow him to testify.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., who heads the subcommittee that will hold the hearing, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Clinton's office also did not have an immediate response.