How the FBI Brought the Two Parties Together

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Something strange is happening on Capitol Hill this week. Faced with a choice between attacking an allegedly corrupt Democratic Congressman or criticizing George W. Bush for expanding presidential power, Republican lawmakers chose the latter.

With the Democrats declaring this year's mid-term elections a referendum on Republican corruption, you would have expected a full-scale Republican counterattack against Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson after the FBI raided his offices Saturday night. But instead, the latest developments in the unfolding Jefferson saga have brought the two parties together for once, with both Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress agreeing on one thing: FBI raids on their offices are bad and dangerous things.

Top lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate argued the raids on Jefferson's offices are a potential violation of separation of powers clauses in the Constitution. The top Democrat in the House, Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, said soberly, "Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with Constitutional protections and historical precedent so that our government's system of checks and balances are not undermined." Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert was not so restrained. He called the raid "deeply troubling," and said all legislative documents should be privileged against such searches to "prevent overreaching and abuse of power by the Executive Branch."

They may have a point. As far as anyone can tell, the Justice Department has never before raided a Congressional office. And the "speech or debate" clause in the Constitution is unusually explicit in protecting the work of members of Congress. "It's never been done before and its never been legally tested," says top Republican ethics lawyer Jan Baran of the raid. He predicts that if any useful evidence was gathered it will immediately be subject to attack by Jefferson's lawyers. "The Congressman can assert that the evidence was obtained unconstitutionally," Baran says.

And in a surprising move today, Hastert and Pelosi issued a joint statement demanding that the Justice Department return the documents it seized in the raid. "No person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation. The Justice Department was wrong to seize records from congressman Jefferson's office in violation of the Constitutional principle of Separation of Powers, the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, and the practice of the last 219 years. These constitutional principles were not designed by the Founding Fathers to place anyone above the law. Rather, they were designed to protect the Congress and the American people from abuses of power, and those principles deserve to be vigorously defended."

Jefferson may be as surprised as anyone to see Hastert and other Republicans fighting on his side. The Democrat, who represents much of New Orleans, is in serious legal trouble by all accounts, and the allegations released last weekend after the raid are lurid. The FBI charges he authorized bribes of Nigerian officials to drum up business for a Kentucky telecom company, iGate, and that on July 30, 2005, he took $100,000 in cash out of the trunk of a collaborator's car in Pentagon City, and then stored the cash in a refrigerator in his home in plastic food containers. The following month the FBI raided his home and hauled the money away as evidence.

A cynic might say Republicans — and Democrats — are rallying to Jefferson's defense out of fear, not principle. No one has suggested the top Congressional leaders have any personal interest in making sure the FBI can't search their offices. But there's no shortage of other members who might worry that once the doors to the House and Senate office buildings are opened, there's no telling whose office the feds will raid next.

The top Democrat on the House ethics committee, Alan Mollohan, was forced to step down over allegations of misuse of earmarks and misreporting on his financial disclosures, and the Justice Department is reportedly reviewing a complaint against him. The Republican head of the House Appropriations Committee, Jerry Lewis, is reportedly under investigation for potential misuse of earmarks. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, on trial for illegal campaign fund transfers, is also under investigation for dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former staffers. The former Chairman of the House Administration Committee, Ohio Republican Bob Ney, has been fingered by four people in a public corruption scheme tied to Abramoff. Florida Republican Katherine Harris and Virginia Republican Virgil Goode have also been caught up in spreading influence-peddling allegations. And Republicans Conrad Burns, John Doolittle and other Abramoff casualties are biting their nails while the feds investigate them.

But there is another more likely reason for the outcry on Capitol Hill. Rather than an isolated incident, Republican leaders view the FBI raid as another example of the Bush Administration's expansion of executive branch power, and they appear to have lost patience. Says Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Majority Leader Bill Frist, "There's a real separation of powers issue here." And one Senate leadership aide says the feeling is Bush has gone too far this time.

Some Republicans have been complaining about Presidential overreach for some time. House Republican Heather Wilson objected directly to the President earlier in the year about the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has held hearings on NSA eavesdropping and detention of American citizens. Now, however, it appears Congressional leaders are getting in on the act. After all, there's nothing like an immediate threat to focus the mind.