Gonzales vs. Jefferson: Making Sense of Crazy People

Well, as many of you know, there is a bit of a tizzy going on up in Washington, D.C. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) got his law offices raided by the F.B.I. Suddenly, Congress is interested in protecting Constitutionally-guaranteed rights. The F.B.I., and Attorney General Gonzales, claim they were completely within their rights to search the office of a Congressman being investigated for corruption. Congress is claiming historic precedent (first) and Constitutional protection (second). Meanwhile, Jefferson is jumping up and down waving his hands and swearing his innocence.

I was a bit confused. I have read the Constitution, many times, and I couldn’t figure out what the hoopla was all about. I mean, the man was being investigated for corruption. They found $90,000 of what was allegedly a $100,000 bribe in his freezer. And they even went to the trouble to get a warrant; a luxury we mere mortals cannot necessarily count on, anymore. So, for you poor souls who, like me, just don’t get it…here’s a breakdown of what I have been able to figure out.

The (Constitutional) Issue:

Article 1, Section 6 states that all Senators and Representatives

…shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

It is being argued that the confiscation of legislative documents from Jefferson’s office violates this provision. This might be true, if the documents taken deal with legislation (in the sense of drafted bills, research for that purpose, committee reports, etc.). What is not included, according to the letter of the law and legal precedent, is anything else.

So that seems straightforward. But that’s not really the issue.

The (Other) Issue:

The “Speech and Debate” clause was put in the Constitution for the express purpose of keeping the Executive Branch from harassing the Legislative Branch (as had happened under King George III). The idea (which has been tacitly accepted for 219 years, now) is that the Executive can’t just barge into Congress’ offices and look through their stuff. The Executive can’t harass members of Congress with which it disagrees. These two branches of our government may hold hands or they may try to choke the life out of each other in public…but behind closed doors they leave each other in peace. So what the F.B.I. did is kind of like coming home from work and finding your wife reading through your email account or snooping in your diary. And Congress is reacting exactly the way you would: “How dare you?! You crummy %^&$! I know it wasn’t in the prenuptial…but I just assumed we had an understanding, a level of trust! You are damned well sleeping on the couch.”

In the end, whether the raid was Constitutional or not will come down to what, exactly the F.B.I. confiscated, and whether or not Congress can present any evidence that this was a politically motivated act designed to intimidate Congress, rather than a criminal investigation. If the documents were not legislation-related, and there is nothing to indicate that this was not just part of a criminal investigation, then Congress will have to settle back down and accept it.

It’s a pity that Congress couldn’t be bothered all these years to safeguard our rights. But on the upside, now that its prize pit bull has turned and bitten it, maybe it will pay a little more attention to discipline.