Selective Outrage

Here’s the webpage for Rep. Sensenbrenner’s breathlessly titled hearing on the FBI search of Rep. Jefferson’s office: “RECKLESS JUSTICE: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?” It’s a stacked deck–four scholars who share Sensenbrenner’s outrage over the raid.

Perhaps the testimony of Jonathan Turley or Bruce Fein, both of whom have been on the right side of important separation of powers issues in the last few years, will change my mind. But right now the congressional reaction to the search reminds me of President Clinton piously invoking the Constitution in defense of the God-given, natural right to fool around with the help and lie about it in court. As Clinton put it at a news conference in 2000: “on the impeachment, let me tell you, I am proud of what we did there, because I think we saved the Constitution of the United States.”

If you’re going to defend the Constitution, you could pick clearer grounds than a narrow interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it would also be nice if you’d demonstrated the slightest interest in defending it before Ken Starr came knocking. Similarly, if you’re going to complain about “Trampling the Constitution,” it’s a little unseemly to start with penumbras and emanations from the Speech or Debate Clause, when you have a president who claims inherent authority to break any law that Congress passes if he believes it constrains his freedom of action in the war on terror. Marty Lederman puts it well:

if this were part of a concerted congressional effort to fight back against the tide of Executive aggrandizement, the outrage might be understandable. But Congress has been almost completely indifferent, for two years running now, with respect to very serious separation-of-powers challenges – an Executive branch that has repeatedly asserted a constitutional power to ignore statutes regulating the conduct of war; that has kept virtually all of its dubious activities secret from the legislature and public; that has resisted any serious oversight; that has engaged in widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens without warrant or probable cause of wrongdoing (or that the U.S. persons are agents of al Qaeda); etc. And Congress has simply sat back and done nothing. If Denny Hastert, et al., had been fighting tooth and nail on torture, and oversight of Iraq, and the manipulation of intelligence, and the use of signing statements to signal noncompliance with scores of statutes, and violations by NSA of FISA and other statutes, etc., then perhaps this latest incident would rightly be seen as a straw that broke the camel’s back. But… Congress has instead allowed its own core constitutional powers – such as the enactment of laws – to be swept aside with impunity by an Administration with a strikingly aggressive view of Executive prerogatives. That legislators care much more about the sanctity of the contents of their offices than about the enforcement of the laws they have written is, perhaps, predictable, but nevertheless unfortunate.