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A Constitutional Right to Graft? The Moral Rot in Congress

The Moral Rot in Congress

by LAWRENCE R. VELVEL

We are currently being "treated" to more of the moral rot that infests both political parties and, consequently, to yet another example of why a third party is desperately needed. I speak, of course, of the spectacle of the bitter outrage expressed by Congressional members of both political parties over the FBI’s search of the office of Congressman William Jefferson. (Too bad it wasn’t the office of William Jefferson Clinton, isn’t it?) The search was done on a quiet Saturday night (and all night). That is scheming and bad.

But it was also done pursuant to a court authorized warrant, after Jefferson had refused to comply with subpoenas, after he had been caught on tape, says the FBI, accepting a $100,000 bribe, after the FBI found most of the money in a freezer in his home, after Jefferson has become suspected of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars more in bribes, and at a time when, it has become obvious, Congress has become an utter cesspool of corruption, including, of course, the particular corruption of bribery.

The leaders of the cesspool, however, profess themselves outraged — shocked, shocked — over the supposed violation of their supposedly inviolable precincts by the FBI. Not just the expectable coterie of partisan Democrats (the usual suspects), but reactionary Republicans who lead Congress rushed to the defense of an African-American Democrat from Louisiana who appears to be a major league political criminal. It likely has not escaped these Republican heroes, of course, that if the FBI can search the offices of the Democrat Jefferson, then it can also search the offices of the numerous Republican bribe takers and grafters in the national legislature. That is a possibility the reactionary Republicans would devoutly wish to forestall.

Needless to say, the Democrats and Republicans both wrap their selfish concerns in supposed principle, here the so-called Speech and Debate Clause — the little-known subject of legalistics over the years — and separation of powers. But let’s forget the legalistics in favor of discussing what in reality is supposed to be at stake — of what has historically been said to be at stake in analogous situations involving prosecution of legislators. What is said to be at stake in these kinds of situations are the institutional prerogatives, the institutional interests, of Congress, the very powers of Congress. In plain English, if the Executive can search Congressional offices and/or prosecute legislators, it is said, then it assuredly will have the power to intimidate, cow, and coerce the legislative lions. It will become all-powerful, and Congress, the branch that the founders intended to be preeminent, will (further) shrink in importance.


Well, today that argument is a fine how do you do, isn’t it? We have a Congress that jumped on the Executive’s war-making bandwagon and allowed the Executive to go to war without exercising its own legislative authority by questioning WMD claims that were bushwa.

We have a Congress that, as occurred before with Viet Nam, lacks the brains and guts to exercise its own power to stop the war. We have a Congress that has itself done nothing effective — zippo — to stop the Executive torture that violates Congress’ own anti-torture statute, that has done nothing to stop rendering for the purpose of torture or to force the closure of secret prisons in awful foreign countries, a Congress that wouldn’t even dream of — and surely does not want to so much as mention — exercising its power to curb these illegalities by impeaching and convicting their perpetrators.

We have a Congress that has done nothing effective to stop the (impeachable) Executive electronic eavesdropping, in violation of Congress’ own law, that was revealed over a year ago (all we ever got on this subject was more hot air from Arlen Specter), and that equally has done nothing to curb the NSA’s mammoth, recently disclosed electronic domestic data mining of almost everyone’s telephone (including, I imagine, the telephones of people in Congress) (and again all we got is hot air from Specter).

We have a Congress that does not prevent the accession to higher benches of judges who, as lawyers, sponsored ideas for massive inroads on the power of Congress. We have a Congress that has done nothing about the Executive’s 700 plus signing statements saying that it does not have to follow the laws being signed. And this Congress, which has allowed so many phenomenal, and phenomenally important, inroads upon its own power, is the same Congress that is complaining that its prerogatives have been invaded and its power threatened, because the FBI searched the office of a guy who apparently is a big time crook? Gimme a break.

That this Congress could rise up to protect a crook, because a Congressional office was involved, and could do so under the completely phony guise of asserting principled institutional interests even though it has allowed those interests to be mercilessly trampled in far more important ways for years on end, is symptomatic of the selfish moral rot in the Congress and in the two political parties that run the country. As well, Congress has previously shown it will not rise up when other people and their offices are subjected to warrantless electronic searches, but God forbid that the Executive, using a properly authorized warrant, should search the office of one of Congress’ own. The Congressional rising-up in this case is inevitably remindful of the prior political gutlessness of the Congress and the two parties in so many other cases. It is still another demonstration of why we desperately need a third political party lest moral rot, political spinelessness, raging hypocrisy, and plain lying take this country right down the tubes.

Addendum: Still More Moral Rot

After I had nearly finished writing this column, I learned that George Bush had ordered that the materials seized by the FBI from Jefferson’s office be sealed for 45 days to allow the various contending parties to work things out. The Bushian order is, of course, just another example of his own apparently unlimited moral rot, which has been continuously thrust before us for years in so many ways. The order is also a nearly supreme irony.

What has happened, of course, is that in this case Bush, very quickly, buckled extensively when Congress got really angry over actions of the Executive. Yet Bush has shown no compromise, no buckling, when it comes to war, torture, rendition, secret prisons, electronic spying, electronic data mining, signing statements that say the Executive doesn’t have to follow the law, appointment of reactionary judges, or anything else where the Executive, under his leadership, has invaded, or has nullified, the powers of Congress. Yet in the Jefferson matter, Bush, like most bullies, who are fundamentally yellow, buckled as soon as someone really gave sign of standing up to him, and he buckled though the leaders of Congress, having truckled on everything else, are now standing up not in a good cause, but in a terrible cause. There is irony here, is there not? — when Congress stands up, in a bad cause, the peerless leader falls down, but most of the time, no matter how good the cause, the Congress won’t stand up.

There also is moral rot here, is there not? Bush has stood up for one horrible action after another taken by him and his administration, from lying us into war, to torturing people, to spying on Americans, to whatnot. But when it comes to enforcing anti-bribery, anti-corruption laws against the morally and legally crooked politicians who are close to ruining our system, Bush does not stand up. He backs down. This is moral rot for sure.

It also is symptomatic of another problem, one that is not often mentioned in plain, unvarnished terms. Bush doesn’t care about law. He is perfectly happy to see the law broken when this suits his purposes, especially if he can get corrupt Executive Branch lawyers — as he always can — to write indefensible, morally retrograde legal opinions that give him cover. That is a lesson of torture and rendition, where such legal opinions became public, and, if and when other Executive Branch papers are ever disclosed to the public, perhaps as long as 50 or 75 years from now unfortunately, it is nearly 100 percent certain to be a lesson of a host of other Bushian actions. (Bush himself wouldn’t have the guts to let us see the relevant papers. So, like Nixon, he will claim that national security precludes it.)

Anyway, the point of this addendum is that Bush has now weighed in with his own moral rot, to match the moral rot displayed by Congress.

LAWRENCE R. VELVEL is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. He can be reached at velvel@mslaw.edu.