House Wants Guidelines Set for Wiretapping of Members
By Ben Pershing
House officials are hoping to restart dormant talks with the Justice Department on establishing guidelines for wiretapping and searching the offices of members of Congress, just days after the disclosure that federal investigators recorded the phone conversation of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) sparked fresh controversy on the issue.
Negotiations between the executive and legislative branches began during the Bush administration, after the FBI raided the congressional office of then-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). House leaders of both parties were furious at the maneuver, which they contended -- and a federal appeals court agreed -- violated the protections members of Congress enjoy under the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause. Legal wrangling has also surrounded the federal prosecution of ex-Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), whose phone conversations were recorded by investigators.
"Whether it's invading the office or wiretapping a conversation, it's important for us to have separation of powers and respect for individual liberties, while not harboring information that would be useful under the speech or debate clause," Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters today. "We made some progress in the previous administration, and now we have a new president and we hope we can get that resolved."
On Monday, House general counsel Irvin B. Nathan sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder saying, "The House leadership has urged me to resume that dialogue at the earliest opportunity with you and your staff in order to reach agreement on protocols that would deal both with, hopefully rare, searches and electronic surveillance involving members of Congress."
Nathan added, "We recognize that all legitimate law enforcement tools may be utilized against all citizens, and no one, including Members, can be immune from their legitimate use." But given that the Constitution provides at least some protection for lawmakers from having their official acts or work product used against them, Nathan suggested it would be best for the two sides to reach an understanding rather than having some future court decision decide the issue for them.
Nathan's letter, which was first reported by Roll Call, came barely a week after the Harman controversy burst into view. But one didn't actually lead to the other, Pelosi explained today. She said the renewed call for negotiations predated the Harman revelation, but "it became more interesting to you [the press] in light of that."
The goal of the talks, Pelosi emphasized, will be to "make sure that the speech or debate clause is honored, and also that the law of the land is obeyed." Harman herself has called the government's behavior in her case "an abuse of power."
It isn't clear if or when the talks will resume. "We have received the letter, and we're reviewing it," said a Justice Department spokeswoman.
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