What price is too high? Which constitutional mandates are sacrosanct? It’s a question that Congress is wrestling with today as they hold hearings to determine the constitutionality of Justice Department searches of congressional offices last week. Rep Jefferson had $90,000 in cold cash in his freezer when the Gmen knocked on his office door. For anyone else… you, me, Alberto Gonzalez, it would have been by the book. They had a warrant; they had their ducks in a row. This search targeted a Legislative Branch office, though. That makes all the difference. No one is trying to get Mr. Jefferson’s money back for him. That crime has already been committed.
What’s at stake here is the boundaries between the Executive and Legislative Branches of our government. I don’t think this constitutes a crisis yet, but it is a disturbing extension of power by the Executive branch. I think they were counting on a general distaste for Congress, a Democratic target, and general malaise to let it slide. Searching Mr. Jefferson’s offices served several purposes.
The Justice Department could complete the investigation that began with Jefferson accepting the $90,000 on camera. The raid had to come before the summer. Otherwise, as days pass, it becomes more of a political tactic than an undercover operation. Besides, I’m sure every cop in the world dreams of that Law & Order moment when they throw open the freezer door and see row after row of chilly Franklins staring back.
The executive branch could test the new boundaries between themselves and the Legislative branch. Power isn’t granted in Washington, it’s carved out by the participants. Mr. Bush has been discussing the war time powers of the Executive for several years now. His position has been that the War on Terror grants him greater power to intervene in the other two branches of government. Bending, indeed breaking, long standing customs concerning Justice Intrusion into Congress will carve out more precedent for the Executive. It is the concrete action to match the president’s rhetoric. Congress has proven to be quite a pliable opponent on larger issues of oversight and nominations. The Justice Department didn’t expect any problems over one more issue.
Congress should not over react to this incident, nor should they settle for less than real measures that keep this from happening again. I believe in Separation of powers. History is replete with civilizations that neglected balance in favor of security or power.