No one seriously believes that William Jefferson is going to survive the political train wreck he has made of his congressional career. Even the notoriously forgiving voters of New Orleans – who just reelected gaffe-prone Mayor Ray Nagin – are not going to be comfortable with a congressman who hid $90,000 in cash in his refrigerator and got caught on an FBI tape talking about taking bribes.
The question now is whether the system of checks and balances established by the founders in 1787 will be another victim of the train wreck.
When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided Jefferson’s suite of offices in the Rayburn House Office Building, they committed an act unheard of even in the darkest days of the Republic. On orders from the executive branch, federal agents entered the office of a member of the legislative branch and spent hours going through that office and removing materials they deemed necessary to an investigation.
Even House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who has been no great friend of the Constitution, awakened from the comatose state that has usually characterized his response to White House assaults on the system of checks and balances.
Hastert boldly defended the founding document and the Congress he is charged with maintaining as a separate and equal branch of government. The Speaker reportedly telling the president that the raid on Jefferson’s office was a direct violation of the Constitution – in general, of the principle of separation of powers, and in particular of the protections afforded the legislative branch by the “Speech and Debate” clause of the Constitution.
In a lengthy statement of concern, Hastert argued that, “The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case. 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. Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years.”
Is this just a tempest in Teapot Dome that is our corrupt Capitol? No. Not even the most Constitutionally-abusive administrations dared go so far as to raid congressional offices. It is true that John Adams, in his push to narrowly define the Constitution at the outset of the American experiment, did jail a congressional critic, Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon, for suggesting that the second president had displayed “a continual grasp for power [and] unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.” But Adams, who would be voted out of office for his disregard Constitution, never dared dispatch armed officers to the Capitol.