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Congress Begs Pardon

Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman accused Sen. Hillary Clinton of aiding
Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman accused Sen. Hillary Clinton of aiding "enemy propaganda." (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)

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By Al Kamen
Friday, July 27, 2007

The Constitution, as everyone knows, gives complete, unfettered power to the president to pardon criminals. But now Congress is trying to get into the act, working to issue "Get Out of Jail" cards, good for one year, to people it deems wrongly incarcerated.

The House on Wednesday night passed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would deny any money to "enforce" the conviction and the sentences of former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, who were convicted and sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively, for shooting a Mexican drug smuggler and covering it up. That would mean the Bureau of Prisons couldn't keep them in prison, where they've been since January pending appeal.

Anti-immigration groups have championed their cause and the amendment, by GOP Reps. Ted Poe (Tex.), Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.). If passed by the Senate and signed by President Bush, it would free the pair for at least the next fiscal year. (The amendment would have to be passed each year thereafter.) The goal, we're told, is to get the agents out of jail pending what the three members hope will be a successful appeal.

The White House has not opined on the measure, a House source said. But Bush may see it as a way to placate part of his base, which is furious at him over his immigration policies and has demanded a pardon.

Of course Bush also might see this move as a serious infringement on the executive branch's law enforcement powers. But then he would have to veto the entire bill. (What happened to that line-item veto thing?)

And if the amendment does become law, then who would have standing in court to challenge this apparently unprecedented move? Turns out, no one would, says longtime Constitution observer Bruce Fein.

Fein said he "researched this a bit and can't find a time when Congress tried to nullify the effect of court sentence" and "tried to assume some of the pardon power of the president. The logic [of the amendment] could be extended to allow them to stop investigations into members of Congress, to allow Congress to give itself a special shield."

Yet, this legislation could have wonderful benefits for everyone. We might see increased political contributions on the Hill from folks who would like to buy congressional pardon insurance. Current members, such as Rep. William "Cold Cash" Jefferson (D-La.) would be out of danger and former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) would be looking to find a new yacht.

This has great potential as a whole new kind of earmark.

Pulled From the Lineup

Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday strongly defended Undersecretary Eric Edelman as a "valued member" of the Pentagon "team" and praised his "wise counsel" despite his truly unwise letter to Sen. Hillary Clinton last week accusing her of aiding "enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies."

Even a number of conservatives said Edelman's letter, responding to a Clinton inquiry about contingency planning for a withdrawal from Iraq, was over the top, and Gates himself felt it necessary to make nice with a letter to Clinton. Conservatives no doubt felt that what made it truly unwise was that it had the effect of boosting the Democratic front-runner's antiwar bona fides. (Unless you think Edelman is somehow thinking that Clinton would be the easiest Democrat for Republicans to beat.)

Despite Gates's praise, it appears the "team" felt it might be prudent -- or Edelman decided so -- that he lower his profile. So Edelman, who was on the schedule to testify Wednesday to a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and intelligence committees, was a no-show.


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