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Subpoena Fight is About Respect

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Respect. It is a word that is bandied about in all areas of American life from sports to religion to pop culture. Everyone wants it and those who do not get their requisite share can not wait to payback those who fail to show it. In politics, respect is almost everything. It allows opponents to set aside their differences and work together to solve problems, even those that previously seemed intractable. Sadly, the absence of respect is an unfortunate byproduct of American politics and explains many of the silly fights that plague governments at all levels. The longer adversaries show disrespect to their opponents, the less likely things can get done. That's why the standoff over whether White House officials will testify under oath and in public over their roles in the firing of U.S. Attorneys threatens to intensify into something that could plague the Bush administration as much as Iraq.

The fact is that the George Bush does not respect Congress. He didn't respect Congress when Republicans were in charge and certainly hasn't changed now that Democrats are in the majority. He governs as if Congress is a contemptible nuisance that exists simply to nitpick at his preferences. He has little patience for a co-equal branch of government that has the temerity to question his authority or wisdom. That was fine from a political strategy perspective when the Republicans were in charge of Congress because they did not want to give Democrats the satisfaction that would come with real governmental oversight. The problem for the administration now, however, is that it can not steamroll or ignore the Democrats the way it did with the Republicans. While House and Senate Republicans spent the entire Bush administration with their eyes and ears closed, rarely raising their collective voice beyond a whisper when it disagreed with the White House, the Democrats have very little to lose by asking hard questions and insisting on answers. This is so even if subpoenas have to be issued to ensure that the truth is revealed. The ability of a subpoena to focus ones thinking would not be necessary if people did not lie, but as we have seen throughout history, most recently with investigation of the leak of the identity of a covert CIA operative, sometimes the threat of jail is required to get to the truth.

The Democrats should settle for nothing less than full, public hearings, under oath, to find out if Republican-appointed U.S. Attorneys were fired because they showed insufficient fealty to the White House. Bush defenders are quick to point out that these public officials serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reasons. Both points are true, but so is something else: just because you can fire someone for any reason doesn't mean that you should fire someone for any reason. If it turns out that these attorneys were fired because they "over prosecuted" Republicans or "under prosecuted" Democrats, then it's not a stretch to charge that the White House was trying to monkey around with the justice system. That is unacceptable and should be punished.

The Bush administration, through incompetence, heavy handedness, and arrogance, has lost any claim to the benefit of the doubt. Consequently, the White House is standing on political quicksand in its refusal to come clean on the process they undertook to remove U.S. Attorneys, all of whom were highly rated. While it is too early to know where this all will lead, the Bush Administration is becoming quite Nixonian in its relationship with the truth and lack of respect for the rule of law.

Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of
Republicans and the Black Vote.