I may be the only person in Washington who finds the constitutional Gotterdammerung over the FBI's raid of a congressman's office ... well, endearing. Quaint even.
Rep. William J. Jefferson appears to be that one-in-a-million rarity, like a buffalo nickel or a four-leaf clover: a corrupt Louisiana politician. Gasp away, but it's true. The New Orleans Democrat was caught on video allegedly taking a $100,000 bribe from an FBI informant (and allegedly demanding further bribes), and a subsequent search revealed $90,000 in his freezer. That's a lot of crawdads.
The wily Jefferson reportedly tried to hide incriminating documents in a blue bag while the FBI was searching his house. This may have tipped off the feds that they couldn't expect Jefferson to stick to the high-minded decorum they've come to expect of other Louisiana Democrats, from Huey Long to Edwin Edwards. It also shows that Jefferson may have strayed far from the Democratic mainstream. After all, Sandy Berger taught us that proper procedure for concealing documents is to shove them into your pants.
Informed by a Jefferson aide that more relevant documents were being stored in the lawmaker's Capitol Hill office, the FBI got a warrant from a respected federal judge. It's true, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose thumbless grasp of political reality is approaching mythic proportions, never thought to work out an arrangement whereby the feds need not raid the office on a Saturday night. But the FBI was fairly scrupulous in its lengthy warrant application about how it would seek only evidence in the criminal case and no documents relating to Jefferson's official duties. But that wasn't enough to forestall the much-ballyhooed "constitutional showdown."
The core of the controversy is that nothing like this has happened before. The Constitution and political tradition have kept Congress largely immune from physical invasions conducted by the other two branches of government. The "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution bars interfering with legislators in their official duties - though it's hard to find any language in there that might allow a congressman suspected of corruption to swing from the rotunda like Quasimodo shouting, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"
Lacking precedent, Washington is lurching into doing the right thing: referring to the Constitution and the founders' intent to figure out what to do. That's a nice change of pace.