Congress finds its backbone - in the freezer

Posted: Jun 02, 2006 12:05 AM

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.

Even more refreshing, Congress is suddenly acting like a real co-equal branch of government. In recent years, it has mostly been a subservient wife to the White House, one who finds solace in a shopaholic's credit card spree. The Jefferson episode represents a real turning point. The doormat syndrome is over. Congress is going to stand up for itself. Isn't that heartwarming?

Sure, some might quibble that the House might have asserted itself over some loftier causes - say, wiretapping. But if protecting alleged shakedown artists is what it takes for Congress to restore its self-esteem, who are we to judge?

What makes this episode so Capra-esque is the monumental political stupidity of congressional Republicans. Constitutional arguments aside, this kerfuffle represents an astounding example of political self-immolation nominally on principle. (I say nominally because I suspect House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is more miffed about CIA chief Porter Goss getting sacked than he is about Jefferson getting ransacked.) The House GOP is under a cloud of corruption thanks to the Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham cases. This cloud could cost the Republicans their majority come November. But if a high-ranking Democrat is caught stashing $90K next to his Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks, the Republicans could change the subject from GOP corruption to Democratic corruption; instead, they opted to go with curtain No. 2 and change the subject to GOP arrogance and stupidity. The congressional GOP - which won Congress by promising the laws of the land would apply to Congress - decided to seize Jefferson's cream pie and throw it in the White House's face.

Ironically, this scenario is only possible because the same party controls the House and the White House. If House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were in charge, she might make the same case in good faith that this was a constitutional outrage. But nobody would take it seriously on account of how self-serving it would sound.

This would surely get the founders smiling. They were no great fans of political parties. But they did hope that the House and Senate would be jealous guardians of the people's rights as a coequal branch of government. I don't believe anything that precious is at stake here. But it's just so touching to see politicians acting as if they do.