Thursday, May 25, 2006

Self-absorption as a point of principle

The Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who have rarely fought back against the Bush administration's ongoing efforts to diminish Congress' constitutional powers, are suddenly declaring that they are mad as hell and they're not gonna take it anymore.

Yes, they are outraged. They are inveighing against what they call an unconscionable executive branch violation of the separation of powers. They are drawing a line in the sand, and spoiling for a fight.

So what's the reason?

Is it because the Bush administration bypassed Congress, and 1978 statutory law, by setting up a warrantless surveillance program?

Is it because the White House stonewalled Congress' attempts to obtain the full documentary evidence of the administration's performance during Katrina?

Is it because President Bush has reportedly signed 750 bills into law, and then declared in "signing statements" that he would not enforce those laws as written, but rather as he chose to interpret them?

Is it because Bush's lawyers argued in legal briefs that Congress is powerless to interfere with any presidential decision to torture enemy prisoners?

Is it because they perhaps agree with the conclusions of the Cato Institute, the conservative think tank which contends in a new report that Bush has "repeatedly dishonored" his pledge to respect the separation of powers and that Bush "has weakened the constitutional order on which the American way of life depends"?
Again, no.

Here's the reason: An assertive act by an executive agency has personally ruffled the politicians' feathers.

Last Saturday night, some FBI agents armed with a search warrant raided the Capitol Hill office of a congressman who's under investigation for taking bribes. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is suddenly voicing outrage, invoking the seperation-of-powers doctrine, and declaring that "no person is above the law," even in the executive branch, because this time the prerogatives of lawmakers are directly involved. And the House Judiciary chairman, Republican James Sensenbrenner is suddenly gearing up for a hearing next week, entitled "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?" (Hastert was joined in protest by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who must be enjoying this moment.)

In other words, the politicians have drawn a principled line in the their own office vestibules.

This isn't even a particularly good crusade, because, as legal scholars point out, the search by an executive agency of a congressional office, while unprecedented, is not a specific violation of any wording in the Constitution; as one scholar, Akhil Reed Amar, noted, "It's really a matter of etiquette. I don't see any constitutional principle here."

More importantly, however, is the unintended political message. Voters, who are already sour on the performance of Congress, might draw the conclusion that the leaders on Capitol Hill, far from appearing to be standing on principle, might be coming off as a tad self-absorbed, as more concerned about their own nests than the civil liberties of average folks.

One Republican senator, David Vitter of Louisiana, sensed this danger yesterday. He warned that the public "will come to one conclusion: that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations...For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people."