Paul Greenberg

Not even the finest piece of machinery is safe from the ignorance or just malice of those operating it, as many an engineer has discovered. And not even the greatest works of statecraft, like the Constitution of the United States, are safe from politicians blinded by partisanship.

The Constitution's finely woven web of checks and balances, always shifting this way and that with the times, presents a tempting target for those who would ignore its subtleties for no better reason than that most familiar constant in political affairs, powerlust.

Which explains why a couple of congressional committees are issuing subpoenas to a Republican president's top aides. Having won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992, the new Democratic majority is champing at the bit. At last vengeance is theirs.

Now a federal district judge has backed up this runaway majority. To quote the opinion of His Honor John D. Bates in upholding subpoenas to Harriet Meiers, a former presidential counsel, and Joshua Bolton, White House chief of staff: "The Executive cannot identify a single judicial opinion that recognizes absolute immunity for senior presidential advisors in this or any other context."

Maybe that's because Congress has never before gone to court to enforce a subpoena against top White House aides. It is Judge Bates' ruling that is unprecedented.

When it comes to the constitutional separation of powers, Congress and the president usually reach some artful compromise in order to avoid a showdown - and the kind of landmark decision that might permanently alter the delicate balance between the two branches. Which is what the White House has offered: a private interview with these aides off the record. But the Democrats are in no mood to compromise.

Think about it: How logical would it be for a Constitution that sets up different and theoretically co-equal branches of government to give one of them the power to issue subpoenas for high-ranking members of another?

Something tells me that Judge Bates would have seen the illogic of it if, instead of issuing subpoenas to senior officials of the executive branch, the House Judiciary Committee had issued one for a federal judge. We are all most sensitive when our own rights are threatened.

There may be no explicit statute or judicial precedent granting the executive branch independence from congressional harassment, but the independence of each branch of the federal government is implicit in the Constitution's separation of powers.

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.