Where’s the Outrage Over William Jefferson?

The New York Times has a cover story today highlighting the great divide between House GOPers and the Bush White House over the FBI’s search of Democrat Rep. William Jefferson’s (La.) Capitol Hill office last weekend.

Nevermind that the search found cash wrapped in foil and hidden in the congressman’s freezer. Nevermind that at least two associates of the Democrat lawmaker have pled guilty to bribing the congressman. Nevermind that the FBI had a warrant.

Where is the outrage?

I understand the Republicans’ being upset over the search of a congressional office by the Justice Department. There are plausible arguments, on "separation of powers" grounds, to be made, but, seriously, people ought to be a little more ticked that it is looking increasingly likely that Jefferson was at least influenced inappropriately.

The New York Times doesn’t seem to think so. In their 1,000+ word cover story, there was no actual condemnation of the actions for which Jefferson is being investigated.

In fact, Times reporter Carl Hulse seems more concerned about hyping the GOP infighting with the Bush Administration, hitting congressional Republicans over the White House’s actions, and reminding readers of Republican-related corruption than pointing the finger at a Democrat who is — at best — perceived by many analysts (left and right) to be tainted by scandal.

Hulse opens his column by claiming that the yes-men in the GOP were finally tired of grabbing their ankles for Bush’s abuse of power. Well, that’s not exactly what Hulse wrote, but it’s close. Here’s the actual opening paragraph:

After years of quietly acceding to the Bush administration’s assertions of executive power, the Republican-led Congress hit a limit this weekend.

The Times notes that Majority Leader John Boehner (R.-Ohio) believes the issue could wind up at the Supreme Court.

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader, predicted that the separation-of-powers conflict would go to the Supreme Court. "I have to believe at the end of the day it is going to end up across the street," Mr. Boehner told reporters gathered in his conference room, which looks out on the Capitol plaza and the court building.

A court challenge would place all three branches of government in the fray over whether the obscure "speech and debate" clause of the Constitution, which offers some legal immunity for lawmakers in the conduct of their official duties, could be interpreted to prohibit a search by the executive branch on Congressional property.

What would the case be called, Hastert, Boehner, Blunt, et al v. Bush?

Of course, Hulse was careful to point out how this incident not only fit a pattern set by the White House but almost certainly can be traced back to the evil Dick Cheney:

Lawmakers and outside analysts said that while the execution of a warrant on a Congressional office might be surprising — this appears to be the first time it has happened — it fit the Bush administration’s pattern of asserting broad executive authority, sometimes at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches.

Pursuing a course advocated by Vice President Dick Cheney, the administration has sought to establish primacy on domestic and foreign policy, not infrequently keeping much of Congress out of the loop unless forced to consult.

I wonder if the Carlyle Group might somehow have also been involved.

One of the really obscene parts of this story that misses the point of the story (that point being William Jefferson) is that Hulse felt he had to make up the “real reason” Republicans have a problem with this search: Republicans are corrupt.

Republicans may have a potential self-interest beyond defending the institutional prerogatives of the legislative branch. With some of the party’s own lawmakers and aides under scrutiny in corruption inquiries tied to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the former lawmaker Randy Cunningham, Republicans would no doubt like to head off the possibility of embarrassing searches of their members’ offices.

Yes, if the FBI searched a Republican congressman’s office, they would surely find a link to Jack Abramoff, to the real story behind 9/11, and to the JFK assassination. And surely Democrats would be up in arms that an innocent-until-proven-guilty Republican had his office searched by FBI agents bearing a search warrant. Certainly, the outrage of such a search is what would lead on the cover of the New York Times just days after the search.

Hulse goes on to add, essentially, that not only do Republicans not object to the search on the “separation of powers” argument (note their “real reason” above), but also their making a scene because they want to get away from Bush’s low poll numbers.

There is no sign that Congressional Republicans’ discontent over this particular matter may spread into a more general challenge to the administration’s expansive view of executive authority. But the friction has underscored the growing willingness of Republicans on Capitol Hill to distance themselves from the administration at a time when Mr. Bush’s poll numbers are touching new lows, prompting the White House to try to repair relations with Congress.

But what is really outrageous is that Republicans admit that their anger over what could be serious corruption on the part of Jefferson does not compete with their concern that a congressman’s office was searched in the investigation of a crime.

Members of Congress are mindful that much of the public is not familiar with the speech and debate clause, which, among other things, requires that lawmakers be "privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same." Many people may wonder why a Congressional office cannot be searched in a criminal case and what members of Congress are complaining about.

To many lawmakers, that is secondary to the larger separation-of-powers principle they see at risk.

"I clearly have serious concerns about what happened," Mr. Boehner said, "and whether the people at the Justice Department have looked at the Constitution."

What if Jefferson were being investigated for a more “serious” crime? Would a murder or rape or espionage investigation be OK? If so, why not corruption or bribery investigations?


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