Leaving town in disgrace

Both the White House and the U.S. House ended the week on a mutually sour note.

As he has with all his terrorism legislation, President Bush tried to stampede Congress into passing a wiretap bill, saying the country was “in more danger of an attack” if it didn’t enact the law precisely the way he wanted.

The prior law, a temporary measure smarmily called the Protect America Act, expires this weekend and very little will change. Wiretapping foreign communications will be governed, as it has been for the last 30 years, by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Warrant-less wiretaps already in place will be good until at least August. To begin new ones, the Bush administration will have to apply, as it should in any case, to a special court. The White House complains that obtaining a warrant is too cumbersome and time-consuming, but that is an administrative and procedural matter.

House Democrats accuse Bush of fear mongering, and they have a point. The holdup between the White House and House lawmakers is not over national security but whether the telecoms will be shielded from liability for their secret cooperation in an earlier and possibly illegal warrant-less wiretapping program.

If House Democrats held any moral high ground at the end of the week, they more than lost it by voting for the first time ever to cite top White House aides for contempt. The White House called it “unprecedented and outrageous” and it is.

Cited for contempt were Bush’s senior-most aide, chief of staff Joshua Bolten, and his longtime adviser and former White House legal counsel, Harriet Miers. They had refused to testify before Congress under oath and also refused to turn over subpoenaed documents and e-mails in connection with the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

Those firings were one of the Bush Justice Department’s shabbier episodes and may have been part of a campaign of politically motivated prosecutions and minority voter intimidation. And that certainly bears investigation, which Congress has been doing.

But nothing so far has turned up what would justify overturning long-standing precedents of executive privilege and confidentiality.

Let’s hope the House returns from its two-week vacation and Bush from his trip to Africa in a better, more collegial frame of mind.