By Patrick OConnor - 05/24/06 12:00 AM EDT
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told President Bush yesterday that he is concerned the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) congressional office over the weekend was a direct violation of the Constitution.
Hastert raised concerns that the FBI’s unannounced seizure of congressional documents during a raid of Jefferson’s Rayburn office Saturday night violated the separation of powers between the two branches of government as they are defined by the Constitution.
“The Speaker spoke candidly with the president about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s raid over the weekend,” Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said yesterday in confirming his boss’s remarks.
Hastert told reporters yesterday that he understands the reasons for the investigation but objected to the manner in which the raid was conducted.
“My opinion is they took the wrong path,” Hastert said. “They need to back up, and we need to go from there.”
Republican objections are independent of any facts in the corruption probe against Jefferson. Their complaints pertain solely to constitutional questions about the raid itself.
The issue is not clear-cut for both parties. Republicans have repeatedly cited the Jefferson probe as an example of Democratic malfeasance in the face of charges about their own “culture of corruption.” On the Democratic side of the aisle, the investigation itself undermines the effectiveness of their efforts to tar Republicans with the corruption issue.
Jefferson is being investigated to see if he influenced legislation in exchange for a number of elaborate, illegal payment schemes, including a single cash payment of $100,000, most of which was discovered in his freezer during a later raid of his home.
Calling the Saturday-night raid an “invasion of the legislative branch,” House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) predicted the case would eventually be resolved in the Supreme Court and hinted that Congress would take further action. The majority leader said Hastert would take the lead on the issue because he is the chief constitutional officer in the House.
“I am sure there will be a lot more said about this,” Boehner said.
The Jefferson raid is the most recent flare-up between Congress and the White House. In a statement distributed Monday night, Hastert made it clear that he was not given a heads-up about the FBI’s raid on Jefferson’s office.
In the Speaker’s lengthy statement, Hastert complained that the seizure of legislative papers, no matter how innocuous, was a violation of the “the principles of Separation of Powers, the independence of the Legislative Branch, and the protections afforded by the Speech and Debate clause of the Constitution.”
Hastert also singled out Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in that statement: “It would appear that the Attorney General himself was aware that Separation of Powers concerns existed … because in seeking the warrant the FBI suggested to the judge procedures it would follow to deal with Constitutionally protected materials.”
During a news conference with reporters, Gonzales defended the FBI raid but said he and leaders on the Hill are involved in private discussions about “what can be done to alleviate” lawmakers’ concerns.
“I obviously — personally, and the Department collectively — we have a great deal of respect for the Congress as a coequal branch of government, as a separate and independent branch of government, and [we’re] obviously sensitive to their concerns,” he said.
He noted that discussion to try to address lawmakers’ concerns began Monday evening and continued yesterday.
“We respectfully, of course, disagree with the characterization by some,” Gonzales said. “We believe … we have been very careful, very thorough in our pursuit of criminal wrongdoing, and that’s what’s going on here. We have an obligation to the American people to pursue the evidence where it exists.”
Congress has both investigative and budgetary oversight of the executive branch, but there was no word as of press time about oversight hearings into the raid or its constitutionality.
Democrats were supportive of Hastert’s criticism and appear to support the Speaker in pursuing further action.
“No member of Congress is above the law,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters yesterday. “I am concerned about the unprecedented exercising of authority over a separate branch of government and the execution of a search warrant without any communication with the leadership of this House.”
Hoyer said he agrees with Hastert’s concerns and was less than defensive of Jefferson.
“The institution has a right to protect itself against the executive branch going into our offices and violating what is the Speech and Debate Clause that essentially says, ‘That’s none of your business, executive branch,’” Hoyer said.
During his own briefing, Boehner joked with reporters that he was withholding his own strong reservations about the raid because of a staff request that he do so.
“I would like to say more, but I have been advised by my advisers that I shouldn’t,” Boehner said.
But after repeated questions, the majority leader expressed his full reservations about the Justice Department’s action.
“When I raise my right hand and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, I mean it,” Boehner said, referring to the oath members take at the beginning of each Congress. “[Justice Department employees] take the same oath, so somebody better start reading the Constitution down there.”
Leaders in both parties have said this is the first time in the 219-year history of the United States that the Justice Department has taken these actions.