Congress gets a much-needed lesson on loss of freedoms

From the standpoint of public sympathy, the House couldn’t have chosen a worse time to stand on constitutional principle. The voters surely do not share the House members’ outrage at a weekend FBI raid of a congressional office in connection with a spreading influence-peddling investigation that has tarred the whole institution.

Indeed, after ABC reported that GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert might get caught up in that probe, Hastert accused the Justice Department of trying to intimidate him because he so vehemently objected to the raid. This was fine irony coming from a legislator who couldn’t do enough to broaden the department’s powers through the Patriot Act and its renewal.

What happened was that the FBI, armed with a warrant signed by the chief judge of the U.S. district court, searched the offices of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., and hauled away two cartons of documents and copies of hard drives. Jefferson is hardly a sympathetic figure on whom to make a constitutional case. The FBI already has videotape of him allegedly accepting a $100,000 bribes and agents confiscated $90,000 in cold cash hidden in the freezer of his Washington apartment.

Hastert and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a pairing many though impossible, denounced the executive branch’s action as a violation of separation of powers, the speech and debate clause of the Constitution, and “the practice of the last 219 years.” And they demanded the immediate return of Jefferson’s documents. Moreover, the Republican-run body that was markedly incurious about the Bush administration’s stewardship of the laws is now planning hearings under the overwrought title, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

It says something about the state of relations between the administration and Congress that the Justice Department and White House seemed stunned by the strenuous reaction. After all, they had trampled over Congress’ prerogatives before with no discernible reaction.

The two leaders are on shaky constitutional ground, legal scholars say. The Constitution makes an exception to lawmakers’ legal immunity for felonies and nothing in that document says Capitol Hill should be a sanctuary for committing them. However, historians could find no precedent for a warrant and search of a congressional office.

Still, there is a serious issue of government to be addressed. The potential for Soviet-style intimidation is clear. Members of Congress must be confident that they are free from politically motivated reprisals from the executive branch and, at the same time, the Justice Department must be free to conduct legitimate investigations into unlawful conduct.

The raid did have one beneficial effect. The House is finally paying attention to due process and civil liberties.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)