On 20-May-2006, the FBI searched the offices of Rep. William Jefferson (D-Louisiana) in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, as part of a criminal investigation into the alleged taking of bribes by the congressman. What shocked me about this was the response from various members of Congress; House speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) have all criticized the fact that the search took place, claiming that the search was unconstitutional, on the basis that it violates the separation of powers in the federal government and, by implication, threatens the very foundations of American democratic system of government. This notion is not merely incorrect, but betrays a disconcerting ignorance of one of the basic principles of the rule of law (which is a necessary condition for democracy), namely that lawmakers should not be allowed to pass laws from which they themselves are exempt. The most obvious—and most effective—safeguard against the creation of bad laws is the knowledge on the part of the legislators that any such law will hurt them as badly as it does everybody else. Congress does not deserve any protection which it is not willing to accord to the citizens it (supposedly) serves, especially not after having eroded Americans' civil liberties for decades in the pursuit of the "War on Drugs" and now the "War on Terrorism." This does not disturb the "delicate balance of power among the branches of government," as Hastert claimed, because the executive still requires permission from the judiciary, in the form of a warrant, to conduct searches. And the FBI had duly acquired a warrant prior to carrying out, which is more than can be said for, say, the NSA's wire-tapping.
I will grudgingly give Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) credit for coming out and stating that "No House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land, period," but I'm less than impressed by the fact that it evidently took him the better part of a week to figure that out. It's not like the GOP can claim to be unfamilar with this concept; in their 1994 "Contract with America," they pledged that:
On the first day of the 104th Congress, the new Republican majority will immediately pass the following major reforms, aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government:
- FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress; [...]
Sensenbrenner, Hastert and Boehner should be well familiar with this agenda, having been members of the House since 1979, 1986 and 1990, respectively. Their apparent failure of memory regarding the very first item in the GOP's "written commitment with no fine print," among other things, suggests that the "Contract with America" was never worth the paper it was written on. That said, though, it is evident that the Representatives of both major parties badly need a refresher course on the basic principles of democracy.