Dennis Hastert and buddies are getting the big horselaugh from journalists and bloggers of all political orientations for complaining about the FBI raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s office. Given how indifferent Congressional Republicans have been to other forms of investigative and security heavy-handedness. they deserve all the mockery they get.
That said, as Matt Yglesias notes, there’s a real separation-of-powers issue here. The FBI is a big, powerful organization, with a well-deserved reputation for playing dirty when its organizational interests are in play. (To choose an example almost at random: there’s reason to think that the FBI files that torpedoed Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird got to the press via the FBI rather than via Hill staffers; Baird in particular was seen as a potential threat to the FBI’s independence.) Do we really want every Congressman who criticizes the Bureau or fails to vote it more money or wider powers to have to worry about potential revenge?
Robert Mueller seems to be pretty much a straight shooter, without much partisan or ideological loading. But Louis Freeh was something else again, and Freeh’s political and cultural biases were consonant with those of the organization, which remains very much the outfit J. Edgar Hoover created. The successful war Freeh waged against Bill Clinton (not just over Whitewater and Monica, but over the phony Chinese spy scandal) ought to be a warning. Giving the FBI more power over the Congress will not in the long run be good for liberalism.
In particular, now that the precedent has been established, what’s to keep the Bureau from raiding the offices of Congressional Democrats in leak investigations? Finding a judge to sign a search warrant is trivial, especially in any case with the “national security” label.
The Constitution places the authority and responsibility for disciplining Congressional misconduct squarely upon the Congress. The problem, of course, is that the Congress has been signally lax in carrying out that responsibility. If the Congress won’t do its job, then the Bureau will be happy to take over.
The House Ethics Committee and its Senate counterpart should each have its own corps of investigators, with powers of subpoena and search within the Capitol complex on the approval of half the members of the relevant committee: that is, on the approval of the Members or Senators from either party. (Perhaps, given the likelihood that committee members might leak investigative material to their partisan colleagues under scrutiny, there ought to be two independent investigative agencies in each House, one Democratic and one Republican, each reporting only to its half of the Ethics Committee.)
Given the way the Congress operates, I would think that overuse of the search power would be the last thing we had to worry about, though of course a DeLay or an Armey or a Gingrich might easily abuse it. But that power has to exist somewhere, and I’d rather have it on the Hill than down at what’s still called the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
Update I note with glee that Hastert himself seems to be under criminal investigation. No real surprise there; it’s inconceivable that DeLay could have run the House Republican Conference as a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization all those years without the Speaker’s connivance. But note that this news (sourced to “senior U.S. law enforcement officials”) hit the media the day after Hastert dared to criticize the Bureau. And note also that ABC supinely transcribed the leak, without alerting its viewers/readers to the obvious motivation of the FBI to dirty up one of its critics. I said the Bureau played rough. I never denied they were good at it.