Too clumsy by half

May 31, 2006

There's a protesting-too-much quality to the vigor with which some of the most conservative Republicans in the House joined Democratic leaders in condemning the FBI's raid on the congressional office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat. They're right, but probably for the wrong reasons.

Are they worried about the separation of powers? These are the same folks who have allowed the Bush administration to overstep its constitutional bounds in any number of other ways, including ordering warrantless wiretaps of Americans and writing into regulation policies that it can't get through Congress, such as relaxing clean air standards.

Their concern can't be partisan politics: The smart move for Republicans would be to quietly let Mr. Jefferson, who is under investigation for bribery, alert voters that if there is a "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill, it's not exclusive to the GOP, as Democrats say.

No, those lawmakers fighting so diligently to protect the sanctity of Mr. Jefferson's Capitol Hill office seem to be mostly concerned about their own hides. Who might be next?

Regardless of their motivation, all lawmakers should be alarmed by the ham-handedness of the Jefferson raid. FBI agents essentially used brute force to enter a congressional office and pry through files, including private constituent correspondence. It appears to have been an unnecessarily invasive tactic that could have been avoided.

Investigators were reportedly frustrated because Mr. Jefferson had failed for months to respond to a subpoena for documents, and they did get a judge's approval for the search warrant. But they made no attempt to alert congressional leaders, who might have been able to resolve the stalemate. FBI agents also refused to allow Mr. Jefferson, his lawyer, a House lawyer or even Capitol Police to be present when the raid was conducted.

Whether or not this violated constitutional protections against the executive branch using its muscle to intimidate Congress may be up to the Supreme Court to decide. At a minimum, though, the precedent is deeply disturbing.

No one contends the congressman has any immunity from prosecution for criminal offenses. His Washington apartment, where investigators found $90,000 in marked bills stashed in the freezer, was searched without complaint. But a congressional office is due a higher level of respect.

Of course, if Congress had done a better job of policing itself, maybe the Justice Department wouldn't now be conducting several major investigations involving lawmakers and staff. But lots of lawmakers have been sent to the slammer over more than two centuries, and none of those cases required an office raid on Capitol Hill.

House leaders are now negotiating with Justice to establish rules for the next raid. Sadly, all assume they will be necessary.

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