(Editor's note: In an earlier version of this column Congressman Zach Wamp was incorrectly identified as a Democrat. He is a Republican.)
Does anything give the press corps more pleasure than catching a congressman with his paws in the community cookie jar? Perhaps capturing a priest in flagrante delicto with a choir boy, but not much else. It is no wonder that the media go after the crooked politician -- be he a member of the GOP or the Timesizing Party of Massachusetts -- with such glee. Generally speaking, there are two types of people that naturally gravitate toward politics: the messianic and the criminal. Both crave power, but seek it down different avenues. Sometimes the paths converge and you get a immortal fraud like Huey Long. Mostly they are small fries.
America, Mark Twain said, is a nation without a distinct criminal class "with the possible exception of Congress." Apparently nothing changes. This week it was the Democratic Party's turn to feel chagrined as one of its own was captured on tape taking bribes. William Jefferson (D-Louisiana) was allegedly involved in a Nigerian Internet scam. No, not that Nigerian Internet scam, the one that shows up in your email inbox each time you log on. Congressman Jefferson, after all, is no dummy. He is a "Harvard-trained" lawyer. His scam was a bit more sophisticated.
Faced with yet another malefactor in their ranks, congressional leaders sought to divert the media's attention, while they doubtless made desperate phone calls to their staff with orders to shred evidence and bury the bodies. Amazingly Saturday night's raid was the first time in U.S. history that the FBI had searched a congressman's office. This caused one nervous Republican with the absurd name of Zach Wamp to make an equally absurd threat to rein in the Justice Department, presumably before the Feds uncover another ABSCAM. (That bribery scam, you may remember, resulted in the conviction of seven congressmen back in 1980.) Outdoing Rep. Wamp was House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who was quoted as saying that "Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this separation of powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by members of Congress." Let's face it, Mr. Speaker, it's a different world than it was 219 years ago, as far as corruption goes. The crooks and the scams are more sophisticated. Today we're talking about millions of dollars of investments into high tech business ventures in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana, not America's first political scandal, when Federal Judge John Pickering (another "Harvard-trained" lawyer) was impeached in 1804 for drunkenness and vulgarity on the bench.
For eight months the FBI waited for Congressman Jefferson to hand over the subpoenaed documents. The congressman deferred. Typically the FBI will subpoena lawmakers for congressional documents, then, out of courtesy, the subpoena goes to the House or Senate legal counsel for his okay. But it wasn't congressional documents the FBI was looking for. It was evidence of a crime. The FBI had obtained a warrant from a federal judge in Virginia. That assumes probable cause. If that's not enough separation, then how about the fact that another judge will rule on the validity of any seized documents. All three branches are involved in this. In this case the American people don't want separation among the branches, they want cooperation.
The American people also want to know why lawmakers should receive special treatment when it comes to criminal investigations. If anything, politicians should be watched even more closely than the average Joe. Because they hold so much power, because they have so much influence and hold the nation's purse strings, because the type of person that goes into politics is often power-hungry, their actions, offices and communications should be more open to scrutiny, not less.
The House Ethics Committee has been by far the busiest body on Capital Hill this year. A carnival of rogues has paraded past the committee in recent days and there seems no end in sight. So Hastert and Pelosi are threatening to take action to prevent the Feds from searching lawmakers' offices. "I expect to seek a means to restore the delicate balance of power among the branches of government that the Founders' intended," said Hastert. Meanwhile, The Christian Science Monitor reports that about half of the American people consider Congress to be incorrigibly corrupt. The way to change that opinion is not by some asinine precedent that puts Congressmen above the law, but to monitor their movements 24 hours a day. Electronic ankle bracelets should do nicely.
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