Jewish World Review June 5, 2006/ 9 Sivan, 5766

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

Some straight talk about privilege | A little applause from the peanut gallery, please, for Rep. Barney Frank. The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts gets it.

The House of Representatives is still twitching with outrage and bruised ego over the search of Rep. William Jefferson's office at the Capitol, conducted with a properly executed federal search warrant obtained after FBI agents discovered $90,000 in marked bills in Mr. Jefferson's freezer, hidden amongst the mackerel and the frozen peas. The feds had been investigating suspicions that Mr. Jefferson was trolling for a little bait and grease in the conduct of his congressional business, and undercover FBI agents offered him $100,000 in marked bills to see whether he would take it, and he took it. (No word yet on what happened to the other 10 grand; this could have been a tithe to his church, but so far no one has accused him of that.)

You might think that both Democrats and Republicans in the House would be unanimously humiliated by this episode, eager to let the Right Hon. Mr. Jefferson explain himself. But if you think that, you clearly don't read the newspapers as closely as you should. Dennis Hastert, the speaker, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, and a considerable number of their colleagues think the sin, if not the crime, is the work of the investigators. The constitutional guarantee of protection for congressmen on duty - the so-called speech-and-debate clause - means, so their argument goes, that members of Congress should also be safe in their hideouts at the Capitol. You can't treat a congressman like Bonnie and Clyde, even if they're acting like Bonnie and Clyde.

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But not everyone wants to play follow the leader. One who doesn't is Barney Frank, the liberal's liberal, the Democrat's Democrat, the partisan's partisan. Citing custom, precedent and the history that Mr. Hastert and Mzz Pelosi missed in high school when he cut class for wrestling practice and she skipped out to primp for the prom, Barney Frank offered a little late learning:

"I disagree with the bipartisan House leadership criticism of the FBI's search of a member's office," he told his colleagues the other day. "I know nothing specifically about the case, except that the uncontroverted public evidence did seem to justify the issuance of a warrant.

"What we now have is a congressional leadership, the Republican part of which has said it is OK for law enforcement to engage in warrantless searches of the average citizen, now objecting when a search, pursuant to a validly issued warrant, is conducted of a member of Congress. I understand that the speech-and-debate clause is in the Constitution. It is there because Queen Elizabeth I and King James I were disrespectful of Parliament. It ought to be, in my judgment, construed narrowly. It should not be in any way interpreted as meaning that we as members of Congress have legal protections superior to those of the average citizen.

"So I think it was a grave error to have criticized the FBI. I think what they did, they ought to be able to do in every case where they can get a warrant from a judge. I think, in particular, for the leadership of this House, which has stood idly by while this administration has ignored the rights of citizens, to then say we have special rights as members of Congress is wholly inappropriate."

You don't have to appreciate Barney Frank's politics, or even agree with his needling of the administration for its pushing against constitutional protections of civil rights in the pursuit of terrorists, to applaud this reminder that election to public office is not a pass to do whatever you please.

The pursuit of privilege is a virulent disease in Washington, and it's catching. For example, the D.C. Council has given itself a waiver on obeying parking restrictions. The aldermen (and women), like the rest of us, grew weary of looking for a parking place and, on finding one, of having to trudge back from time to time to put another quarter in the meter. Unlike the rest of us, the aldermen (and women) were in a position to do something about it. When this newspaper prints an occasional reminder, with an accounting of who voted for the waiver, we can expect an angry complaint from City Hall that we just don't understand how important aldermen (and women) are. The congressional disease is a trickle-down disorder.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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