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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

Members of Congress in world of their own

By Elmer Smith

I really don't mind that the people we send to Washington live a bit better than most of us.

I don't begrudge them their chauffeured sedans and pension plans, the housing allowances both in the capital and back home in the district. I'm even trying to understand why they all deserve the kind of health insurance the rest of us can only dream of.

It's hard enough to get good help on The Hill now. Take away the perks and we'd end up with 535 people who failed the Post Office employment exam.

So I don't mind sweetening the pot a bit. Frankly, I wouldn't take the job if they threw in a toaster oven and a flat-screen TV.

But I'm going to need a little help understanding why the people who represent me in Congress should be immune from the same search-and-seizure laws that law-abiding folks back home are subject to.

I didn't get it last week when members of Congress rushed from both sides of the aisle to defend Rep. William J. Jefferson's right to make his office off-limits to FBI investigators.

And when the president was so moved by their argument that he sealed the seized records, I felt like the only guy at the party who didn't get that last joke.

Jefferson is the Louisiana congressman who appears to have accepted a bribe for services rendered. The FBI claims they videotaped that appearance as he accepted $100,000 in marked bills from a person in their employ.

They say they found $90,000 in similarly marked bills in his freezer, where it was cleverly disguised as bricks of broccoli. They say they also have a sworn statement from an informant who told them that Jefferson and he split another $400,000 in frozen assets (apparently not frozen like that broccoli) that the FBI has yet to locate.

This would explain their interest in searching his office. It explained it well enough for a federal judge to issue a search warrant, which the FBI promptly executed last week.

That's when House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi rose as one to protest the impropriety of the search. They cited an arcane provision of the Constitution meant to keep a sitting president from using executive powers to intimidate the legislative branch by launching spurious investigations and searches.

This is a serious separation-of-power issue. In instances where the president even appears to be using the Justice Department for political purposes, the leaders of Congress and the judiciary ought to be up in arms.

But there is nothing here to suggest that this was done at the behest of the president. Hastert and Pelosi don't even claim the president had any prior knowledge.

Nonetheless, Hastert and Pelosi and a half-dozen other members of Congress worked themselves up into a righteous lather and demanded that the FBI return the seized records. The president stepped in and calmed the troubled waters by ordering the records sealed for 45 days to give the courts a chance to clear it all up.

I guess it's good to see the president and leaders of both parties reach an accord that will protect our lawmakers from unwarranted government intrusion. Who knows, maybe this will be just the thing to help them understand why we get a little nervous knowing that the National Security Agency has unfettered access to our phone records.

Maybe not.

After all, there is no greater separation of powers than the gulf between ours and theirs.

Elmer Smith is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Reach him at smithel@phillynews.com.