Is Congress Becoming a Safe Haven for Crime?

Washington Matters

Is Congress Becoming a Safe Haven for Crime?

The Supreme Court ducked a decision on whether the FBI search of a congressman's office and the reading of his official paper's was legal. The refusal to hear the case allows to stand a lower court ruling that said the FBI went too far. That's a good thing -- even if the Bush administration's laughably exaggerated claim that banning such searches could turn the Capitol into a "sanctuary for crime" proved true.

Of course you have to hold your nose while accepting the notion that evidence of a possible crime might go undetected or useless to prosecutors -- in this case a bribery charge against Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. But that bad odor is far less scary than the idea that one branch of government could intrude into the work of and intimidate another branch.

The 2006 FBI raid on Jefferson's office -- the first search of a member of Congress' office in history -- was seen as such a gross abuse of executive power that the usually warring leadership of both parties united to denounce it. Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., personally complained to President Bush about the raid and demanded that seized documents be returned -- despite the fact that Jefferson is a Democrat whom Republicans loved being able to point to at a time when multiple GOP members were being investigated for a variety of crimes.

While Justice Department lawyers asked the Supreme Court to reverse the federal appeals court ruling, Attorney General Michael Mukasey made clear he wanted the justices to avoid doing so. He fears a "bright line" decision could hurt one branch or the other and make it impossible for Congress and the executive branch to negotiate solutions in future cases. That's the way disputes like this almost always work -- and, remarkably enough, solutions are generally worked out when they need to be. And besides, the notion of lawmakers getting away with murder because their offices are protected by the Constitution is just plain silly. Despite late show jokes and cynical "they're all crooks" griping by voters, outright criminal conduct is relatively rare in Congress. One of the worst periods of corruption was around the same time as Jefferson's woes became public -- Mark Foley, R-Fla., resigned from the House because of inappropriate emails sent to pages and he may still face charges; Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., is in jail for taking bribes; and Bob Nye, R-Ohio was put behind bars for taking favors from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ugly and unpleasant, but hardly a crime wave and a congressional safe haven.

Some of the nation's worst crises and abuses of power -- think about Nixon's White House spying on political enemies and FDR's efforts to pack the Supreme Court -- were caused by presidents who saw their powers as nearly limitless. And at a time when the current occupant of the White House is accused of seeking an unprecedented expansion of executive powers, the court's refusal to formally tilt the balance of powers into the White House's direction even more is reassuring. Regardless of whether a president is a Republican or a Democrat.