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Coconut Road Investigation Takes an Unconstitutional Detour

Yesterday, the Senate rejected Senator Coburn’s proposal to establish a joint House-Senate investigation of the Coconut Road earmark and instead adopted an amendment sponsored by Senator Boxer that would “direct” the Justice Department to conduct an investigation.  According to an article in The Hill, Majority Leader Reid’s office circulated a memo supporting the Boxer amendment and arguing that the Coburn amendment was a “poison pill” that would raise “major Constitutional issues under the Speech and Debate clause because it allows one chamber to investigate another’s members.”

 This is a specious argument.   Whether the Speech or Debate Clause would pose a difficulty for the investigation proposed by Senator Coburn depends on the answer to two questions: (1) does the Senate constitute “any other place” within the meaning of the Speech or Debate Clause when the speech or debate questioned took place in the House? and (2) if so, would a joint Senate-House committee constitute “any other place”?  These are interesting questions that, as far as I know, are not directly addressed by any precedent.  Based on my experience, I would say that the answers are (1) probably not and (2) almost certainly not, but I cannot say that the questions are settled ones.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that a Justice Department investigation does constitute “any other place” within the meaning of the Speech or Debate Clause. Thus, while there may or may not be a constitutional problem with the solution proposed by Senator Coburn, there is unquestionably such a problem with the solution proposed by Senator Boxer. Even assuming that the alteration of the text of the Coconut Road earmark violated some law (which is far from apparent), the Justice Department could not constitutionally prosecute any Member or staffer for such action. Moreover, the Justice Department would be barred from obtaining any information from the House regarding the circumstances of the alteration, thus very likely making it impossible for it even to establish the facts of what occurred.

Leaving the legal technicalities aside, it is difficult to imagine what could be more offensive to separation of powers generally and the Speech or Debate Clause in particular than for the Congress to call upon the executive branch to investigate the very core of the legislative process, namely how a bill is physically prepared for enrollment. It is astounding that the same Congress with one breath can decry the “politicization” of the Department of Justice and, with the other, outsource its own constitutional responsibilities to that Department.

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