Representative William Jefferson (D., Mo.) has no hot money stashed in his office. For when the F.B.I. raided it, they found $90,000 in cash in his freezer, cool as could be.
Some of us keep our serious money in checking accounts, though this involves tedious recordkeeping. Some of us carry rolls in our pockets, to impress the ladies at gentlemen’s clubs, or stash wads in shoeboxes or under the mattress. Like Representative Jefferson, I prefer the freezer. It keeps the individual bills crisp and stiff, like lettuce from California. When I take a few thousand out to go to the grocery, my list of items to buy is right there on the door.
Alternatively, it is possible that a member of Congress does not think of $90,000 as a serious sum. Everett Dirksen famously said, of the public’s money, that if you spend a million here and a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money. These habits of mind may carry over to Congressmen’s personal budgets; any solon might leave a small amount in his freezer accidentally, when he was looking for a fudgesicle or a suppository.
The executive and the judicial branches do not take such a lighthearted view of the matter, however. The F.B.I. had been investigating Representative Jefferson for bribe taking for months, and their search was made after obtaining a warrant. Nor does Congress: House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.), together with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), protested the search as unconstitutional. Now, finally, we know: Twelve years in power have been too much for the G.O.P. Their batteries have worn out, and so have their brains. The Democrats will regain control of Congress this fall.
Begin with the politics of it. Corruption has been a Democratic campaign theme, as it is when any party out of power has the least pretext. The Democrats have a pretext. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R., Calif.) resigned in 2005, pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes; this April, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. Lawyers say that when you can’t argue the facts, argue the law, and when you can’t argue the law, argue the facts. Politicians say that when you can’t argue anything, pray your opponents are struck by lightning. The raid on Representative Jefferson’s office was just such a bolt, a gift from Jupiter Nonpartisanus. Did Speaker Hastert maintain a respectful silence, to let the story, with its wonderfully vivid freezer, obscure the image of Republican skullduggery? He did not.
More important than the politics are the principles at stake. Mr. Hastert, of course, says he is moved by the principle of the separation of powers. The Constitution says that members of Congress “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 for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.” This was meant to protect the legislature from the harassments that kings and Puritans both visited on Parliament throughout English history. But bribery is a felony (ask Randy Cunningham), and freezers are not secure from search unless a Congressman keeps his speech notes in them.
Mr. Hastert mounts the high horse of principle with particular awkwardness since the Republican majority that he leads goes back to 1994, and the action that, more than any other, brought it to power was the Contract with America, conceived by Newt Gingrich. The Contract committed “the new Republican majority” to passing “major reforms, aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government.” The first of these—Mr. Hastert can find it easily, because it was labeled “FIRST”—declared that “all laws that apply to the rest of the country” will “also apply equally to the Congress.” If I have bribe money in my Frigidaire, I can’t ask the Constitution of the United States to guard the freezer door against a search warrant. Neither should Representative Jefferson, or Representative Pelosi, or Speaker Hastert.
Mr. Hastert’s betrayal of his own party’s principles is unfortunate because it suggests other betrayals. Applying the law equally is not the only part of the Contract with America that has gone the way of all toilet paper. The Contract also called for a balanced-budget amendment “to restore fiscal responsibility to an out-of-control Congress.” The House, to its credit, passed such an amendment, though it never became law. And now, 12 years later, here we are with an out-of-control Congress.
But House Republicans are not the most unpopular people in America. That title may be reserved for Senate Republicans, or at least the 23 of them who joined 38 Democrats to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. Illegal immigrants will not have to know English to understand this bill; it’s a welcome mat, and the Republicans who signed it are the doormats. It is not necessary for House Republicans to muster the energy they have shown on behalf of Congressional freezers to defeat the Senate bill. All they have to do is hunker down, and let House/Senate negotiations break down. If they do that, they may snatch some cred yet.
Is there one more possible savior in the wings for Congressional Republicans? Could it be Congressional Democrats? Frequent elections are the people’s security against rogues and bums. But if the other party also consists of rascals, how can voters, in good conscience, throw the rascals out? Yet we feel that there is a value in change for change’s sake, even as we drain swimming pools and lance boils. So it is with Congress.
The pity of it is that if the Democrats retake Congress, President Bush will be impeached, for three reasons: 1. because they can; 2. because Bill Clinton was; 3. because their enrages, who are a minority of the party but a majority of its committed, demand it. It would not be the first time in wartime that the tribal customs of the Anglo-Saxons have astonished the world.