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Every time congressional Republicans fail to match their actions with their rhetoric, they lose precious credibility with the grass roots. That’s one among many reasons they must follow up on their pledge to hold hearings on the government’s seizure of Elian Gonzalez.

Following the government’s raid, Republican lawmakers scheduled a hearing, and subpoenaed from Justice all documents related to the raid. When Justice said it couldn’t meet the 24-hour deadline to provide the documents, Senate Republicans didn’t utter the slightest displeasure, and acted almost relieved to have discovered an escape route.

The wires speculate that Republicans lost their nerve after learning of polls showing overwhelming public disapproval of the hearings. I don’t want to believe that this is purely a matter of political expediency for Republicans. But it might as well be, in terms of how their retreat will be perceived.

Can you imagine what would happen to our judicial system if a judge dismissed a case against a defendant because he failed to comply with a discovery deadline? Would that not be an invitation to all defendants to disregard court orders on the expectation that they would thereby be released from the suit?

Congressional Republicans have lost much respect since the Contract with America, their major triumph after taking control of both houses of Congress. I hear from people all the time who say they are no longer going to vote for Republicans, because they don’t fulfill their promises.

But beyond politics, another very important principle is at stake here. Even before the Gestapo raid, Elian had become a symbol of freedom due to the inevitable comparisons between the Communist Cuba he had escaped and the free America where he had attained sanctuary.

As this drama unfolded, the contrasts magnified. Freedom lovers were advocating a freedom-based solution to the problem: a hearing in family court, where Elian’s best interests could be adjudicated based on all the evidence. Communist sympathizers (disguised as parental rights’ champions) in the Clinton administration were demanding a Communist-like solution: return Elian without a hearing, and with complete disregard for his best interests.

But the raid ushered in a sobering reality to the symbolism. The government’s actions before the raid represented the government’s efforts to deny one child the precious gift of liberty. The raid transformed that isolated assault into a threat to freedom for all Americans. This was not just another example of a renegade law-enforcement squad abusing its power. This abuse was orchestrated by the chief executive of the United States, with the full power of his office.

When the entire executive branch is unleashed by presidential edict to commit this kind of mischief, our freedoms are gravely compromised. These freedoms depend on our adherence to the rule of law, a maxim holding that we are a government of laws, not men. This means that no man is above the law, and that government itself is restrained by law. Clinton’s raid violated both of these precepts.

But checks and balances don’t spring forth automatically. They depend on the integrity, courage and action of those entrusted with their enforcement. If one branch of government refuses to live within its constitutionally prescribed powers, it falls upon the other branches to hold it in check. If they don’t, no one else will. If they don’t, the president is given a green light to wield his power arbitrarily and commit further abuses, and we gravitate ever closer to tyranny. In terms of damage to the Republic, there is very little difference between a president abusing his power and a Congress abdicating its power — its duty to hold the chief executive accountable.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is performing its constitutional function of reviewing the matters before it. Now, it’s Congress’ turn, which brings me back to the subject of hearings.

Congress, irrespective of any negative political fallout, must go forward with hearings into this abominable executive abuse, lest it become a co-conspirator in the assault on our freedoms. The hearings must be focused and as expeditious as possible. If the evidence establishes that the administration violated the law, it must be held accountable, which will be a small step toward vindicating the rule of law and preserving our liberties.

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