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May 25, 2006
Post: Congress Hysterical (Update: Someone's Listening)

The Washington Post scolds Congressional leaders for their hysterical overreaction to the execution of a duly authorized search warrant on the offices of William Jefferson, and underscores the point by noting that the subpoena hardly came as a surprise to anyone on Capitol Hill:

THE UPROAR over the FBI's search of Rep. William J. Jefferson's congressional office is understandable but overblown. A demand yesterday by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the Justice Department return the papers it seized goes way too far. Constitutional provisions designed to protect lawmakers from fear of political retribution, such as the speech-and-debate clause, counsel restraint and caution in circumstances such as these. They do not transform congressional offices into taxpayer-funded sanctuaries.

No one wants to have FBI agents pawing through lawmakers' files. Prosecutors and agents need to exhaust other avenues of obtaining evidence before doing so. If a search is required, they must take care not to trample on lawmakers' privileged activities.

It's not yet possible to make determinations about whether these principles were followed in the apparently unprecedented search of Mr. Jefferson's office. But the material for which agents searched had been under subpoena for eight months; Mr. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, resisted complying. Under those circumstances, seeking judicial approval for a search warrant is more reasonable. And while the "Saturday night raid," as Mr. Hastert called it, sounds melodramatic, it's less disruptive than having FBI agents in the House during normal business hours.

Mr. Jefferson was, according to the search warrant affidavit, caught with cold, hard cash: Agents videotaped him taking $100,000 in $100 bills from a Northern Virginia investor working undercover and then found $90,000 of it in his freezer. This was no fishing expedition.

In my opinion, the Post is too easy on Congress. I don't even think the uproar is "understandable". Jefferson resisted that subpoena for eight months without Congress making any effort to force him to comply. If the rule of law truly applies to everyone, then the FBI had to seek a search warrant to seize the materials that Jefferson and the Congress refused to cooperatively release.

Clearly, the leadership of both parties in the House played chicken with the FBI on the Jefferson subpoena, and now want to cry foul after the FBI ran into them head-on. Their cries of indignation appear to be some sort of ersatz distraction from their responsibility in obstructing the Department of Justice probe into serious corruption on Capitol Hill. They will quickly find out that the American people have no sympathy for those who sell us out for bribes, and little for those who protect them from detection.

In case House leadership is too dense to figure even that out, let me be more blunt: this argument is a loser. Drop it now, or risk being seen, justifiably, as an arrogant enabler of public corruption.

UPDATE: Voices of sanity have now surfaced, finally, in Congress:

Some lawmakers are warning of a voter backlash against members of Congress "trying to protect their own" if party leaders keep escalating a constitutional dispute over the FBI's raid of a representative's office. ...

The confrontational approach by Hastert, R-Ill., and Pelosi, D-Calif., did not sit well with some colleagues.

"Criticizing the executive and judicial branches of our government for fully investigating a member of Congress suspected of criminal wrongdoing sends the wrong message and reflects poorly upon all of Congress," Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., said in a statement. "They should not expect their congressional offices to be treated as a safe haven."

A GOP colleague, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, said the public "will come to one conclusion: that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations." ...

The House Judiciary Committee chairman, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, announced a hearing next week, "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"

But Vitter released a letter to his own GOP Senate leaders asking them to stop saying that the FBI raid violated the Constitution.

"For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people," Vitter wrote.

Vitter has emerged as a voice of reason and conservative values in the immigration debate. It might behoove GOP leadership to start listening to what the Senator from Louisiana has to say. And while I normally like James Sensenbrenner, his Congressional hearing will only reveal the extent of Congressional arrogance and wind up putting egg on his face when the answer to his question is a resounding No!

UPDATE II: Andrew McCarthy is as incensed at GOP foolishness on this issue as I am.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 25, 2006 7:08 AM

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