A True Profile in Courage

“In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.”
— John F. Kennedy

J. Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican Speaker in the history of the House, followed his conscience when he rushed in to defend the House as an institution against an out-of-control Justice Department.

The man he was defending, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), was not of his party. Most people assumed he was guilty, because he was found with $90,000 of cold cash in the freezer of his house. Jefferson’s own party leadership, fearing political retribution, did little to defend him.

But Hastert, and his erstwhile chief of staff Scott Palmer, did defend him, at great personal peril. They knew that the Justice Department’s attack on the legislative branch was unconstitutional and illegitimate. They knew that the Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution was being trampled upon. And they knew that by defending Jefferson, they would have to endure the slings and arrows of their own colleagues, the political punditry and talk radio.

Led by one of the worst attorneys general in our nation’s history, Alberto Gonzales, the Justice Department showed little regard for the Constitution nor had any semblance of competence. Despite having a pretty good case against Jefferson, they decided to raid a congressional office in clear violation of the precedents established over 200 years of constitutional history.

They ransacked Jefferson’s office, used brute force to keep congressional personnel away from their efforts, and threatened an armed altercation with U.S. Capitol Police.

Hastert and his staff protested vehemently. The Justice Department’s response was to leak absolute lies about a supposed “investigation” into Hastert’s own ethics, a leak that was meant to intimidate the Speaker into submission. But Hastert would not be intimidated.

He took his complaints directly to the president. President Bush, facing a real constitutional crisis the likes of which this country has not seen, even in the days of Watergate, wisely found a middle course. He refused to back up his Justice Department and called for a “time-out” to give the third branch of government, the judiciary, a chance to play referee.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court deferred to a lower court decision that vindicated the Speaker. As MSNBC put it on their website, “in something of a surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal involving the FBI's unprecedented search of the Capitol Hill offices of Congressman William Jefferson. A federal appeals court ruled that the FBI wrongly used its own agents [to] look through the material seized to determine what might be covered by congressional privilege.”

What makes Congress different from other legislative bodies like the Duma in Russia is that it truly is a co-equal branch of the government. And as the Founders intended, it is the first branch of government listed in the Constitution. The powers of the Congress include the power to declare war and the power of the purse, but what truly protects the Congress from undue harassment and intimidation by the executive is the Speech and Debate Clause. When the Congress invokes the Speech and Debate clause, it is not only protecting itself, it is protecting the American people from tyranny and authoritarianism.

The Speaker endured much for sticking his neck out for William Jefferson, a Democrat and a man who most assume is guilty of something. Talk radio heaped abuse on him. The pundits called him crazy. His own colleagues thought he was delusional. And the Justice Department called him corrupt. But in my mind, what he did to defend the Constitution, the House as an institution, and his colleague was truly heroic. His was truly a profile in courage.