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Unwise Outrage

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You might think that I would sympathize with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's bipartisan anger over the FBI search of the office of Rep. William Jefferson and their demands that the documents seized from the Rayburn House Office Building be returned to the Louisiana Democrat.

After all, I have worked on or covered Capitol Hill for almost 34 years, and I believe that Congress has relinquished too many of its prerogatives to the executive branch over the years. And I've known Jefferson for over 30 years, dating back to when I was an intern in the Senate and Jefferson was a legislative assistant there.

That said, I have to confess that when I heard about Hastert and Pelosi's protests and demands that the fruits of the search be returned, I was speechless, and I still cannot decide who was crazier, Hastert or Pelosi. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was first to question the search, but he reversed course during appearances on Sunday morning talk shows.

Yes, I am troubled by the idea of the FBI searching congressional offices and the thought that a politicized Justice Department might target political enemies. After all, it did happen a little over 30 years ago. Separation of powers is an important doctrine, one that Congress has not given due attention in recent years.

Still, a situation in which a member of Congress is videotaped receiving a possible $100,000 bribe ($90,000 of which is found in his home freezer just a few days later) is pretty shaky ground on which to stand on principle. I'm no lawyer and certainly don't know all of the details of this case, but it's not hard to understand why a federal judge (the judicial branch) would grant a subpoena to the FBI (the executive branch) to search the office of that congressman (the legislative branch).

One consequence of the investigation of a defense contractor's payoffs to former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., is that plenty of subpoenas are floating around Capitol Hill these days. Certainly some nervous members are wondering how it would look if the FBI swooped down on their offices, but in the eyes of the average citizen, this is simply another manifestation of members of Congress believing that they are above the law.

To the average American, the idea that a congressional office is a place that law enforcement officials cannot search, whether for evidence of bribery -- or just for fun, illegal drugs, stolen goods, or espionage -- is ludicrous. Perhaps Mafia bosses should get their lieutenants elected to Congress so their offices can become virtual safe houses. Of course, such an idea is only worthy of a Sopranos plotline, but people think that Hastert and Pelosi are defending legal no-fly zones for law enforcement.

Democrats have pushed the "culture of corruption" theme hard in recent months, taking advantage of the Cunningham and Jack Abramoff scandals, but the Jefferson case exposes the dirty reality that corruption transcends party lines. Why Pelosi thought it would be helpful to her party to attempt to retrieve potentially incriminating documents is beyond me.

And what about Speaker Hastert: Does he really think he is acting in the majority's best interest by stepping into this? To the average American, Hastert and Pelosi are enablers, leaders looking out to protect their own, the ethical and unethical alike, without much regard for public sentiment or common sense.

While I do not support term limits for Congress, my opposition is severely tested when I hear congressional leaders take positions like these. What's even worse is the suggestion that Hastert and Pelosi's actions reflect the widespread sentiments of their respective caucuses. My own suspicion is that their protests reflect the vocal concerns of a few members, some of whom might have something to worry about.

If Hastert, Pelosi, or any other member of the House has doubts about where the public stands on this issue, I would suggest that they bring the subject up at their next town meeting. I would also recommend having a large and sturdy podium to duck behind when the crowd responds.

 
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