Congressonal Oversight and the Prosecutor Scandal

If only David Brooks could get over the need to constantly bash Democrats, even when deep down he knows they are right, he could have some valuable things to say. Yesterday’s column draws an important distinction when speaking of political appointees in connection to the fired federal prosecutors:

Since godlike impartiality is probably not possible, the founders figured, at least the prosecutors could be held accountable to the electorate. The founders made prosecutors political appointees.

But the word “political” in this context has two meanings, one philosophic, one partisan. The prosecutors are properly political when their choices are influenced by the policy priorities of elected officeholders. If the president thinks prosecutors should spend more time going after terrorists, prosecutors should follow his lead.

But prosecutors are improperly political if they bow to pressure to protect members of the president’s party or team.

Brooks finds plenty of fault in how the Bush administration handled this scandal:

Prosecutors, like other professionals, develop a code of honor to help them steer through the gray areas. This code of honor consists of a series of habits and understandings to help individual prosecutors know how to behave when loyalty to the law is in tension with loyalty to the president.

People in well-led agencies are acutely conscious of this sort of honor code. If you work for, say, George Shultz or Robert Rubin, you will have a daily example of how to behave. If you work for some others, your sense of honor will be fuzzy, at best.

When you look at the prosecutors who were fired by the Bush administration, you see some who were fired for proper political reasons and some who were fired for improper ones. Carol Lam seems to have been properly let go because she did not share the president’s priorities on illegal immigration cases. David Iglesias seems to have been improperly let go because he offended some members of the president’s party.

But what’s striking in reading through the Justice Department e-mail messages is that senior people in that agency seem never to have thought about the proper role of politics in their decision-making. They reacted like chickens with their heads cut off when this scandal broke because they could not articulate the differences between a proper political firing and an improper one.

Moreover, they had no coherent sense of honor. Alberto Gonzales apparently never communicated a code of conduct to guide them as they wrestled with various political pressures. That’s a grievous failure of leadership.

At that point, Brooks must have realized he was being too honest. He remedied this by claiming that the Democrats, “apparently out of legislative ideas after only 11 weeks in the majority, have gone into full scandal mode.” We see both his obligatory bashing of Democrats which is irrelevant to the topic of the day’s column as well as an illogical criticism. If there is reason to believe that prosecutors were fired improperly for political reasons there is reason for Congress to investigate. That’s one of the concepts developed by the founders who Brooks refers to earlier in his concept.

Michael Kinsley is another columnist who is failing to understand the proper role of Congressional oversight. He defends his attitude at the end of his current blog entry:

Rereading what I wrote a couple days ago in this blog, one thing does bother me (and AnaMarie rightly called me on it, as did a couple of commentors). I seem to have displayed a cavalier attitude about official lying. I stand by my description of the administration as “comically mendacious”—anyone who hasn’t been entertained by the tango of mid-course corrections is missing a real treat. But it’s also serious. I do tend to think that the solution is in electoral politics—punish liars by voting against them– and not in subpoenas and hearings and special prosecutors and impeachment talk and all the other paraphernalia of scandal.

In order for the voters to punish liars by voting against them, it is necessary for the voters to know the truth and to have the liars identified. Such investigations are exactly what we need Congress to be doing, and that includes issuing subpoenas to senior White House officials who are refusing to testify under oath and with an official record. After all, this is an example of electoral politics at work. The voters, finally realizing they were lied to in 2000 and 2004, voted out the Republicans and elected the Democrats to provide long needed oversight.

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