- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

When Mark Twain called Congress “America’s only native criminal class,” he was probably having a little fun, but Congress insists that he knew what he was talking about.

John Q. Citizen needs a scorecard to keep up with who’s under arrest, who’s indicted, who expects to be indicted, who’s engaged in plea bargaining, who’s on trial and who’s already wearing the stripes. The Senate’s stubborn insistence on treating illegal aliens to another round of amnesty may be nothing more than professional courtesy.

It’s difficult to see how Republican-led outrage over the search of Rep. William Jefferson’s office at the Capitol is a clever ploy, unless a lot of other congressmen need time to move files from the Capitol to an anonymous storage locker, maybe one furnished with a freezer, deep in an obscure suburb.

Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, and Nancy Pelosi, leader of the minority Democrats, spent most of yesterday with their high dudgeon on display over the latest constitutional crisis to shake the very foundations of the republic. A congressman can’t even be safe in his own hideout.

John Q. Citizen and his neighbors, gossiping over the back fence, are not likely to understand why a congressman, under investigation for taking bribes and is found out with $100,000 in marked bills hidden with the mackerel in his freezer at home, should be immune from a duly executed federal search warrant. Is this a movie about Al Capone, or what? Plumbers, farmers, electricians, bus drivers, doctors, lawyers and merchant thieves among us understand very well they would get no such immunity if the cops found $100,000 in marked money in their freezers.

The congressional hysteria over the search of the Jefferson offices strikes the ordinary man as just turf envy, to be greeted with a condescending shrug and rhetorical resignation: “Who do these guys think they are?”

The peril is suspiciously bipartisan. Some of the wiser heads among the Democrats already see this. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, where skimming and scamming is an art form, pointedly declines to join the Hastert-Pelosi Gang. “I’m not going to beat up on the FBI,” he said yesterday. If the Democrats intend to get any traction in November with a campaign against what they’re calling “the Republican culture of corruption,” they can’t make the cops the bad guys.

Republicans are in a similar but slightly different peril. There are more Republicans than Democrats under threat of prison, and most voters might reflect on all the harsh surveillance and detention measures the Bush administration has taken and wonder why the Republicans in Congress expect the feds to go easy on them merely because they’re members of Congress.

Mr. Hastert and Mzz Pelosi argue that members of Congress are protected by the “speech and debate” protections in Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution, which says that members can’t be arrested, short of “treason, felony and breach of peace,” in going to, coming from or participating in congressional sessions, “and for any speech or debate in either house, they shall not be questioned in any other place.” The Hastert-Pelosi Gang interprets “speech and debate” to include the office files. Perhaps Mr. Jefferson should have kept his hundred grand, along with whatever else the FBI was looking for, in a freezer at the office.

The speaker, once pals with Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist that every congressman has suddenly fallen out of love with, accuses ABC News of trying to intimidate him by reporting a leak from the Justice Department that the FBI is after him, too. The network says it’s sticking by its story, though in saying so seems to hint that the sticky stuff is thin soup.

All the soup, in fact, is thin. But it’s nevertheless soup, and our only native criminal class is desperate to stay afloat in it.

Pruden on Politics runs on Tuesday and Friday

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