David Kurtz, guest-blogging at TPM, suggests refusing to seat William Jefferson (D-Cold Cash). Bad idea. The Constitution makes the House the judge of its own returns, but there’s no doubt Jefferson got the most votes Saturday. There’s no Constitutional authority for refusal to seat someone just because he happens to be a crook.
But there is Constitutional authority to expel a member, by a two-thirds vote. Jefferson, along with several of the not-yet-indicted Abramoff/MZM crooks, ought to be called before the Ethics Committee and asked under oath where the money came from. He would have the right to plead his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, on which the Committee would have the right to draw the appropriate inference and recommend his expulsion.
No, this isn’t a violation of the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” The question isn’t criminal guilt, it’s fitness to serve in the House. Whether Jefferson, Doolittle, et al. go to prison is up the the prosecutors and the courts. Whether they continue to make our laws is up to the House of Representatives.
The current practice of deferring Congressional investigation of Members’ misconduct until the conclusion of the criminal process subverts the clear intention of the Framers that the House (and Senate) police its own. Time for a little originalism.