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by Michael Winship

Louisiana Rep. Jefferson at Center of Political Storm

"The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges." The words of cynical journalist Macaulay "Mike" Connor, as played by Jimmy Stewart and written by Philip Barry and Donald Ogden Stewart, in the classic comedy "The Philadelphia Story."

All of which came to mind last week as various members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, behaved like violated vestal virgins when the FBI -- armed with a warrant -- entered the offices of Louisiana Democratic Congressman William Jefferson, aka "Dollar Bill," searching for further evidence of bribe-taking from a high tech company seeking business in Africa.

Reportedly, agents already had videotaped the congressman accepting a briefcase filled with $100,000 in marked bills, $90,000 of which were later found in his home, rolled up, wrapped in foil and squirreled away in his freezer. Insert your favorite, already wilted one-liner about frozen assets or cold cash here.

Members cried that the Capitol Hill raid -- the first in American history -- violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. Mind, similar outrage hasn't been heard over even more egregious recent trespasses -- say, the White House's leapfrogging over Congress to pursue its warrantless wiretapping. Or the 750 or more congressionally enacted laws the president has chosen to ignore by filing veto-proof "signing statements," claiming his right to interpret legislation as he chooses.

But, after hours, the FBI climbed the ladder and broke down the door of the exclusive congressional treehouse, which suddenly reawakened the House of Representatives to that faded flap of foolscap called the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 6, Clause 1, to be precise -- the "Speech or Debate Clause."

The clause was intended to protect legislators from being arrested and prosecuted for unpopular political views, but over the years its interpretation has been bent, stretched and cracked with varying degrees of success. Former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, also a Democrat, fell back on it in 1994 when he was caught in the congressional check kiting, post office scandal. The argument didn't fly with the Federal Court of Appeals and Rosty spent more than a year in stir.

The House members up in arms do have a point or two -- clearer guidelines must be established for Federal agents stepping onto their hallowed turf. But this suddenly chaste embrace of constitutional ideals smacks more of the country club seeking loopholes in its bylaws to keep out the riffraff than the halcyon days of the Federalist Papers.

Those of a more Machiavellian turn of mind smell a rat. By objecting now -- and on behalf of a Democratic member -- the Republicans may be hoping to establish ground rules and wiggle room for the further investigation and potential indictment of other representatives (largely members of the GOP) thought to be on the way.

In any case, it seems conduct unbecoming -- with Congress' approval ratings as low as or lower than the president's -- for members to be scrambling for special perks and advantages unavailable to the likes of you and me, especially when allegations of criminal acts are involved. But it's part of a pattern of privilege the House and Senate -- and their attendant bureaucracy -- have enjoyed forever, from getting away with job discrimination practices deemed illegal anywhere else to unparalleled health care and pension plans. As upstate New York Democratic congressional candidate Eric Massa said to me recently, "I think we ought to put every member of Congress on Medicare. That would solve the problem in a day."

Last Friday, on PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer," commentator Mark Shields said of Congress, "These guys -- honest to God, they ought to be ashamed of themselves... All you have to know is that the last time we raised the minimum wage in this country was nine years ago. We raised [it] to $5.15 an hour. Since then, the Congress has raised its own salary eight times... Talk about being out of contact. I just think it's absolutely indefensible."

Redemption could come in the shape of reform. Stop giggling. For example, how about New York Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter's proposal to ban insider trading by members of Congress and their staffs -- yet another practice denied by law to the rest of us great unwashed?

In "The Philadelphia Story," reporter Macaulay Connor quotes a Spanish peasant's proverb: "With the rich and mighty, always a little patience."

Too late. The public's patience with the rich and mighty of Congress has run out.

© 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York

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Albion Monitor   May 31, 2006   (

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