Insider backstabbing over the job security of a handful of political appointees, even if the political appointees were federal prosecutors, is probably not an issue for Congress and the White House to go to the constitutional mat over.
Deliberate sabotage to the Constitution and the rule of law definitely is.
Neither the principle of executive privilege nor the practice of congressional oversight is likely to well survive a full-on battle over whether current and former White House aides can be forced to testify about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, for what appear to be blatantly partisan reasons. Both principles have their place in maintaining the crucial separation of powers on which our government rests, and whichever side loses any prolonged court battle, especially over a relatively minor matter, would find that standard sadly weakened.
If, on the other hand, Congress cannot get to the bottom of the White House's warrantless wiretapping programs, then the unbalancing of federal powers will be unfortunately and unforgivably tilted in favor of unchecked executive authority.
In rejecting subpoenas from the Senate and House judiciary committees for documents and the testimony of former aides dealing with the prosecutor scandal, the White House has relied on the tried and true argument that presidents are entitled to the unvarnished advice of their aides and that the nation will be the poorer for it if those aides, fearful of being second-guessed before a congressional committee, pull their punches.
That's a valid concern. Unless, of course, the advice being given is to rip the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and any number of federal statutes and court rulings into little tiny pieces just because you think you might catch a bad guy more quickly. If that's what was being planned, rationalized, excused and hidden in those privileged executive briefings, then that privilege does not serve the nation. It harms it.
Congressional Democrats would do well to let the little fish go -- even if it means giving up a chance to fry the man they most love to hate, White House political master Karl Rove -- and focus efforts on the administration's conduct on such constitutionally significant matters as upholding the rule of law.
If the Bush administration won't fully cooperate with Congress on the wiretapping matter, if it will not honor the subpoenas that have been issued in that matter, then it is the administration that is clearly in the wrong, and Congress that will clearly have the duty to press the matter as far and as hard as it can.