It is safe to say that everybody involved was stunned by the reactions to the FBI’s raid on a congressional office and the continuing repercussions. And it is safe to say that this flap of more heat than light over the separation of powers is largely the fault of Congress itself and especially the U.S. House.
The House has refused to take seriously its responsibility to police itself. In a misguided attempt to protect Rep. Tom DeLay from further ethics probes, the House Republican leadership neutered the ethics committee, which only now is beginning to bestir itself from 16 months of inactivity.
In the meantime DeLay, under indictment back in Texas, has resigned. A prominent lobbyist with close ties to the Republican leadership has pleaded guilty to influence-peddling charges as have three former top aides to the GOP leaders. Another Republican congressman is under investigation in connection with the same scandal.
A former Republican congressman is in jail for bribery, and the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee stepped down because he is under investigation for steering federal contracts to contractors with whom he has financial ties.
None of this caused any notable outrage but what did cause Congress to explode in righteous wrath was an FBI raid on the Capitol Hill offices of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., in yet another bribery probe, at least eight instances of allegedly accepting cash for favors.
The raid on the official offices of a sitting member of Congress was without precedent but was done under a warrant supported by a detail-filled affidavit. In a rare moment of unanimity, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi demanded the return of Jefferson’s seized records.
It is indicative of the Bush administration’s dismissive attitude toward Congress that no one bother to consult with the House leaders before the raid and that the White House and Justice Department were taken aback by the blistering reaction. After all, Congress never before had much responded to the president’s broad expansion of his powers at the expense of Congress, including his repeated assertions that he’s not bound by the laws it enacts.
However, the attorney general, his deputy and the FBI director threatened to resign if the White House ordered the seized materials returned. This was a surprising and encouraging assertion of principle in an administration that has tended to value loyalty above all.
Instead, President Bush ordered the records sealed for 45 days while a compromise is reached. It’s hard to see what a compromise could be since the raid was either constitutional or not and most legal experts say it was. And while the president may have thought he acted for the best, it still amounts to political interference at the highest level into an ongoing criminal investigation.
Congress has only itself to blame.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)