WASHINGTON — Now that there will be no vote of “no confidence” in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, we must ask an impertinent question: What, exactly, are we supposed to have confidence in?

Certainly not the White House. Its response to congressional subpoenas issued on Wednesday to compel the testimony of White House officials who were involved in the firing of U.S. attorneys was that the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary committees are “more interested in drama than facts.”

In fact, it is the White House that has drawn out the Kabuki dance by refusing to allow current and former staff members to come forward voluntarily — except under conditions that would involve what amounts to secret testimony without a transcript. The White House requirements resemble nothing so much as the so-called legal procedures in place for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Their purpose is identical: To ensure that the public never knows what the evidence is and who is, or isn’t, culpable.

Intransigence is endemic to the Bush presidency and so we can predict with some certainty a legal wrangle over the subpoenas that is meant to do nothing more than stonewall the probes until the president repairs to his Texas ranch in 2009.

That is an awfully long time to leave the Justice Department reeling and rudderless. But we’ve long known that President Bush doesn’t care how or whether the federal government functions, so long as his functionaries are cared for and his partisan goals met.

The enduring mystery is why Republicans in Congress continue to play along.

In the argument over the failed Democratic procedural maneuver that attempted to set up the “no confidence” vote on the attorney general, Republican senators rose not to praise Gonzales but to bury discussion of his pathetic and increasingly bizarre performance beneath a diversionary blanket of rhetoric about the Democrats being partisan.

Well, of course they were. But that’s because the Justice Department on Gonzales’ watch has been turned into an arm of the White House and the Republican National Committee. This is the reason for the cover-up.

The firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons was merely the spark that illuminated deeper malfeasance and darker motives. The dismissals are to the Justice Department what Hurricane Katrina was to the Homeland Security Department: A catalyst that laid bare the culture of incompetence, cronyism and corruption that defines the Bush administration.

Just as the Senate was having its non-debate over the real issue — the degeneration of the Justice Department into a partisan tool — these developments were unfolding:

— The Washington Post reported that in selecting immigration judges — who are civil servants and not judicial appointees — the attorney general has favored those with Republican political ties above all else. This is itself a violation of civil service requirements. It was compounded by another breathtaking revelation: Half the appointees lacked any experience in immigration law.

— Bradley J. Schlozman, a former interim U.S. attorney in Missouri and former honcho in the department’s civil rights division, clarified (that is, changed) his testimony that he’d been “directed” by a career Justice Department official to bring politically charged indictments against former employees of a Democratic-leaning voter registration group on the eve of last year’s congressional elections. In essence, Schlozman admitted he testified falsely before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The timing of the indictments flew in the face of clear Justice Department guidelines against bringing charges that could affect an election so close to balloting.

— The White House pushed forward the nomination of Hans von Spakovsky to the Federal Election Commission despite his earlier Justice Department role in promoting voter-identification laws that have been shown in academic studies to disenfranchise minorities, the elderly and the disabled, who are less likely to have driver’s licenses — and more likely to vote Democratic.

No one expects Republican lawmakers to be terribly concerned about what is emerging as a clear motive of the Bush Justice Department: using both the criminal and civil rights divisions to tip elections toward Republicans. This is an admission of terribly low expectations.

But they should at least be alarmed that one of the most vital government agencies — one, it must be noted, that plays a pivotal role in the much-ballyhooed war on terror — has been irreparably compromised during Gonzales’ tenure. In the thicket of Watergate, it was Republicans who finally withdrew their support for Richard Nixon and put their duty to the country ahead of allegiance to their party. Why do they not do so now?

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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