Goodlatte's statement was valid -- and important.
But it was even more important that Leahy voiced his parallel concern.
"The burden is always on the government when they go after private information -- especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources," said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. "I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government's explanation."
Attorney General Holder's testimony Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee was hardly revealing, as Holder explained that he had recused himself from the matter.
But that can't be the end of the inquiry -- or the response to it.
Strikingly, Leahy was backed up in his call for answers and action by an angry Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who described the Justice Department's seizure of the phone records as "inexcusable" and added, "There's no way to justify this." Reid went even further, saying Tuesday, "In my career, I've stood consistently for freedom of the press from encroachment by the national security community and will continue to do that. It's an issue I feel very strongly about and will look further whether more legislative action is needed in this regard to secure freedom of the press."
What might that mean? With encouragement from the White House, Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is preparing to reintroduce the media shield law that in 2009 died in the Senate. Among other things, the proposed law gives journalists who have been served subpoenas the option of appealing to a federal judge when they don't want to reveal their sources. It then falls to the jurist -- as opposed to the Department of Justice -- to determine whether the public interest in a story trumps the government's demand that sources be revealed.
"This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public's right to the free flow of information," argues Schumer. "At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case."
When the Department of Justice in a Democratic administration is accused of wrongdoing, it is vital that Democratic leaders in Congress step up to ask the tough questions -- just as it is vital for Republican members of Congress to be out front to check and balance Republican administrations.
Congressional oversight often comes with a partisan edge, and that's not entirely inappropriate. Partisanship animates and energizes oversight committees, ensures that inquiries are pursued and rejects bureaucratic responses.
Ultimately, however, congressional oversight is most effective when it comes from members of the party that controls the executive branch. The United States does not have a parliamentary system of government. Rather, our Constitution outlines a separation of powers between the branches of government. The separation was not designed to encourage partisan division but to assure that there would always be a checking and balancing of power -- regardless of party affiliation or allegiance.
Intense partisanship often leads members of Congress to "go to their corners." And rarely has the partisanship been more intense, more bitter, than now.
But Patrick Leahy has rejected the defensive position into which the weakest of partisans collapse. Instead, he has gone into the same checking-and-balancing stance that has been adopted by Bob Goodlatte. This is as it should be. When it comes to defending the freedom of the press, the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees should, regardless of party, regardless of ideology, be positioned firmly and unequivocally on the side of the First Amendment.
Political cartoonists are still powerful provocateurs of people in power. Victor Navasky explains why.