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Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.


It’s hard to know which is harder to credit: The Congress’ alarm at the FBI search of one of their offices, or the realization by Congressional Republicans that uh, the Bush White House doesn’t have their interests – as Congressmen – at heart.

So this is as good a time as any to look – and look hard – at a White House that is trying with all its might to turn back the clock and reclaim what it believes are the privileges and rights of the presidency. The picture is not pretty. Regardless of your party affiliation.

Let’s start with today’s headlines. Congress is upset by the search of a Louisiana Congressman’s office by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat, is under investigation by the bureau for allegedly taking bribes. Why the outcry? This isn’t just a possibly crooked Louisiana politician’s fate at stake, it’s the sanctity of Congressional offices – the right of the peoples’ representatives to conduct their business as they see fit. In the past – with Rep. Tom Delay, with the Abscam scandal of years past, crooked politicians were caught off Capitol Hill. They may have been set up, but they were set up outside the office.

This is important because the FBI does not work for Congress, it works for the Department of Justice which, in turn, works for the White House. Traditionally the Attorney General is the president’s closest political ally, a custom that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is upholding with a vigor that makes his predecessor John Ashcroft look shy and retiring.

Gonzalez is particularly vigorous when it comes to a matter far more important (and, let’s face it, not that unusual) than bribes to a Louisiana pol. At Gonzales’ instigation, the FBI is also investigating the leaks that led the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish stories that embarrassed the White House, stories about NSA spying and stories about secret prisons where supposed enemies of the U.S. have been held by the CIA.

This isn’t the place to dissect the ins and outs of what the Times and Post writers did or how they got their information. But it’s a good bet – it always is in these stories – that some of the information those reporters got flowed through the U.S. Congress or Senate. The right to criticize the White House is a dearly held right in Congress and the U.S. Senate – particularly when the president’s poll numbers are as lousy as George Bush’s. But even if this weren’t just politics – and that’s playing a big role, make no mistake – Congress, as a group, takes attempts to curtail its power very seriously.

That’s why House Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner – who isn’t exactly a stand-and-deliver pol – is talking about a Supreme Court ruling on this question. That may be, in the end, what the White House really wants. Why? Well, they’ve stacked the deck in their own favor on this issue in particular. (And, by the way, Congress should thank its lucky stars that Rep. Tom Delay ain’t running the show anymore; The Hammer would have taken this one lying down).

How has the court deck been stacked? Well, remember Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito? Democrats got up in arms about same and the probability that he’s not a pro-choice justice. But Alito’s something a bit more deadly: he’s a justice who believes in the superior power of the executive office. He believes in the executive’s right to trump other government agencies in the name of what the president believes is the public good. And these days, we have a president who thinks he’s at war so his ideas about the public good are, uh, expansive, to be polite.

So if the Jefferson case goes to the Supreme Court, it may well be that Alito and other members of the court – those constitutional fundamentalists, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas among them – don’t see anything wrong with the FBI searching a Congressional office. But that means the FBI could be permitted to search Congressmen and Senator’s offices, phone records, memos and other documents to search for other kinds of information. This isn’t just a slippery slope, it’s a sharp, dramatic fall off a precipice.

What’s scarier? Things have gone this far. There’s a lot of loose talk out there about impeaching President Bush for his conduct of the Iraqi War. That’s as much a red herring in the debate about the future of U.S. government as the choice argument is in the debate over Supreme Court justices: it’s a nice old chestnut to pull out for sound bites on TV and rally the party faithful but it’s not really what matters.

The issue isn’t just what the administration did – it’s why they did it – and what it means for the future.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:05 AM | Permalink

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