WASHINGTON -- Hypocrisy is alive and well on Capitol Hill. An FBI raid on a congressman's office has caused a ruckus between his irate colleagues and the Justice Department over congressional prerogatives.
If only those same members of Congress had been more sensitive about individual rights when they passed the Patriot Act, a law invades all Americans' privacy.
They are the same lawmakers who were complicit with President Bush's unprecedented order to secretly eavesdrop on millions of Americans without a warrant.
Where was the outrage from those lawmakers when faced with the shame of the administration's practice of sending prisoners to secret jails abroad where they could be tortured during interrogation?
Why was Congress silent when Bush wrote his own military law to designate individuals as "enemy combatants," and deny them due process, before sending them into limbo?
For too long, Congress has ignored the imperial outreach of the executive branch on the theory that anything Bush wants to do post-9/11 is just fine. But now those angry House members suddenly have discovered the U.S. Constitution and the historic separation of powers after FBI agents raided the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., seizing documents and a computer hard drive.
The agents acted lawfully on the basis of a warrant signed by Judge T.S. Ellis of U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.
The raid on a Capitol Hill office -- said to be the first in history -- followed a sting operation during which Jefferson allegedly accepted a $100,000 bribe from an FBI informant. According to a court document, the acceptance of the money was videotaped.
Later, $90,000 was found in Jefferson's home freezer, stacked in food packages, giving new meaning to the concept of "cold cash." The investigation involved allegations of money passed for brokering business deals in Africa.
The congressman has not been charged and he has denied any wrongdoing, saying there are two sides of the story, but he has yet to reveal the specifics of his own side.
The FBI investigation has led House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to urge Jefferson to resign his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Jefferson has refused to do so and plans to run for re-election. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have rushed to his defense. He also faces a House Ethics Committee inquiry.
The raid has led to constitutional questions about the separation of powers. Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the usually benign House speaker, suddenly found his voice and objected strenuously to the FBI search of Jefferson's office. He was joined by Pelosi in charging a breach of the Constitution's separation of powers. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich also weighed in, calling it an "abuse of power" by the FBI.
To defuse the dilemma and avoid a louder constitutional confrontation, President Bush ordered that the records seized from Jefferson's congressional office be sealed for 45 days, giving both sides time to cool off and iron out their differences.
I guess it all depends on whose ox is gored. The Senate side of Congress is not as outraged over the FBI's foraging for Jefferson documents. Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he was "OK" with the search and had no constitutional problems with it.
"No House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land. Period," Frist said on Fox News Sunday. He said he did not believe the FBI had abused the separation of powers, adding: "I think there (are) allegations of criminal activity, and the American people need to have the law enforced."
The Democrats are worried that the Jefferson case takes away their argument for the mid-term elections that the Republicans have a "culture of corruption." The Democrats were eager to point to former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., now serving prison time for bribery, and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas who is leaving Congress because of a scandal involving his close ties to Jack Abramoff.
Maybe the Jefferson case will give members of Congress second thoughts the next time they get ready to legislate away the rights of ordinary Americans.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.