POLICING THE CAPITOL....

POLICING THE CAPITOL. I know this is an out of season remark and all good liberals should be both distancing themselves from corrupt Rep. William Jefferson and mocking the GOP leadership for suddenly taking issue with the problem of executive branch overreach under circumstances that appear designed to make it easier for congressmen to take bribes, but Dennis Hastert and the other congressional leaders are right on the merits here.

There's a reason why security for Congress (and the Supreme Court) is provided neither by the Secret Service, nor by the FBI, nor by the DC Police Department, but rather by a special Capitol Police Department (or Supreme Court PD for the SCOTUS). This is also why the Constitution stipulates that members "shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place." There's a real separation of powers principle at stake here; the executive branch is not supposed to be charged with policing the behavior of the members of other branches of government. I'll shed no tears for Jefferson, but this is not unlike if the Bush administration were to use an illegal secret wiretap to catch an actual terrorist.

Now, of course, the flipside of this dynamic is that the legislative branch is supposed to police its own members. The House can vote to expel people for misconduct. The House has an ethics committee precisely because it's supposed to police its members. When push comes to shove in separation of powers cases, the executive always has the preponderance of power on its side. The only way to maintain the privileges of the Congress is for public opinion to support Congress. That's simply not going to happen in this instance because Hastert and the rest of the leadership have made it eminently clear that they're not going to keep corruption in check if left to their own devices. Virtually nobody respects Congress as an institution, or the congressional leadership as individuals at this point, and nobody should. So you get what we had here last week; I don't like it any more than Hastert does, but it wouldn't have happened if he'd been doing his job.

--Matthew Yglesias

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