EDITORIAL>> Let Justice do its job
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker in history we were reminded this week, is also the most partisan in a somnolent sort of way. People go to sleep shaking his hand. But the speaker was an inferno after the Justice Department sent agents carrying a warrant into the offices of U. S. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who is under investigation for soliciting bribes. They carried away boxes of files and hard drives from the congressman’s computers.
Joined by the other Republican leaders and the less voluble Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker Hastert said the administration was eviscerating the separation-of-powers doctrine. Republicans were talking about impeaching the attorney general, who himself was supposed to be telling President Bush that he would resign if he were forced to kowtow to Hastert.
Poor George Bush must have been baffled at first at the uproar over an incident that he had expected Republicans to applaud.
After all, taking down a Democratic congressman for corruption would change the subject in Washington, where the influence-peddling and bribery scandals emanating from the Republican lobbyist kingpin, Jack Abramoff, keeps catching more and more Republicans in its sticky web. But, to scotch the revolt, Bush told the Justice Department to close Jefferson’s files for 45 days while a compromise was found.
The congressmen said the warrant and the search of Jefferson’s offices violated the Constitution, which provides that members of Congress are immune to arrest while in session or coming and going for congressional sessions and prohibits questioning them for their speech or debate. They point out that the search of Jefferson’s offices marked the first such executive incursion into a member of Congress’ office in history. That may be, but they read far more into the Constitution than it says or that anyone has any grounds to infer. Jefferson is suspected of having committed criminal acts. FBI agents videotaped him taking a $100,000 bribe to use his office to promote a business deal in Africa. Most of the money was subsequently found wrapped and stuffed in his home freezer. That is when the Justice Department got a warrant to search his office as well.
What the founders intended was to prevent the president and his agents from interfering with a representative’s or senator’s ability to represent his constituents at a congressional session, not to prevent a well-grounded search for evidence of criminal activity.
Here are the questions that Hastert and every American need to ask: Is the same protection available to any other American and, if not, why should a congressman be entitled to greater protections than every other citizen?
It isn’t, and he shouldn’t be.
Rep. Barney Frank, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, had it right. The Constitution, he said, “should not in any way be interpreted as meaning that we, as members of Congress, have legal protections superior to those of the average citizen.”
Justice Department sources told a television network that Hastert was under investigation himself in the expanding Abramoff probe, implying a reason for the alarm of the speaker and other Republicans over the raid of Jefferson’s offices. They want to pre-empt such incursions when the gumshoes get to them. Hastert hotly denied that he was a target or that he was acting from self-preservation.
Congress has drowsed under the imperial presidency. The president appended statements to bills that he signed reserving the right, nowhere found in the Constitution, to ignore the law if he wished. Congress shrugged. When it was discovered that the administration was intercepting telephone and computer messages of millions of Americans, in violation of acts of Congress and the Constitution, Hastert and his men thought it was not such a big deal. They are crafting legislation to give the administration at least statutory authority to do what they have been doing covertly and illegally for three years. Now they want Americans to stop this administration’s usurpation of power and prevent law enforcement officers from doing their lawful duty to investigate a crime.
President Bush can recover some standing with Americans if he tells congressional leaders that he will tell the Justice Department to do their duty.