Paul Greenberg

And might not the papers seized from Congressman Jefferson's office have some connection with a speech or debate in Congress? Doesn't that make congressional suites off-limits to law enforcement?

Not necessarily. A court could refuse to consider any of his records linked to speech or debate in the House, but choose to admit other evidence indicating that the Honorable took a bribe. After all, it's the Speech or Debate clause of the Constitution, not the Congressmen Are Above the Law clause.

Then again, Congressman Jefferson could argue that bribery now has become an accepted part of speech and debate in the House. Whatever one thinks of that argument, it does show a refreshing candor.

All the clamor in Congress moved the president of the United States, caught between an angry House and his administration's Justice Department, to sequester the documents seized by the FBI for a 45-day cooling-off period. Which would seem a prudent precaution until a decent peace can be made between these two branches of the government.

The really shocking development in this case has been the rumor that high officials of the Justice Department - up to and including the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the attorney general of the United States - threatened to resign if they were told to relinquish evidence seized under a court order. Poor deluded lawmen, they seem under the impression that a congressman enjoys no more rights than the ordinary citizen.

Can there still be officials in Washington, even in this day and ethically relaxed age, whose scruples are such that they'd actually give up their prestigious posts rather than violate their oath to enforce the law? What a quaint attachment to simple honor. How 18th century!

What, one wonders, would the author of Federalist No, 57 have to say about this hoked-up constitutional crisis? One needn't wonder. That same Federalist Paper poses the question, "(W)hat is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society?"

The best and highest guarantee against such arrogance, says Federalist No, 57, is "the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it."

And its author adds: "If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty."

We can't say we weren't warned.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.