WASHINGTON — Still think the U.S. attorneys scandal is just partisan froth whipped up by disingenuous Democrats? Still think Alberto Gonzales is in any way, shape or form qualified to serve as attorney general? Still think the name Monica brings to mind a stain (so to speak) on the Democratic Party but suggests nothing about Republican malfeasance and hubris? Then you must be a Republican member of the House of Representatives.

Everyone else who was listening Wednesday had to be flabbergasted as Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee — apparently having been struck deaf and blind — lobbed softball after softball at witness Monica Goodling. This was after Goodling had already fessed up to applying a political litmus test for career Justice employees. I repeat: career employees, not political appointees. Only loyal Republicans should bother to apply.

The deaf and blind Republicans on the committee apparently missed that part of her opening statement. They also missed the part when she accused Gonzales’ former deputy, Paul McNulty, of telling untruths to Congress — and, in the process, hanging Goodling out to dry. Those dogged GOP interrogators did, however, manage to elicit from Goodling the startling disclosure that she believes she is a good person, and also the revelation that while she might have broken a few laws, she didn’t set out to do anything illegal.

All she did, in the influential Justice position that was inexplicably given her, was what Alberto Gonzales and George W. Bush wanted her to do — place loyalty to the president above all else in decisions on hiring and firing.

You’re right that this is not exactly news. What other motivation could there possibly be for putting someone like Michael Brown in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which then proceeded to compound the tragedy of the worst natural disaster the nation has ever faced?

Doesn’t every White House try to impose its priorities on the career federal bureaucracy? Yes, but not every White House has the Bush crowd’s contempt for the very idea of professional government. To them, it’s just one vast bowl of alphabet soup. What difference does it make if an unqualified hack is put in charge of something called FEMA?

The Justice Department is special, though, because it can be such a powerful tool for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Decisions about which alleged crimes and alleged criminals should be prosecuted are among the most sensitive any government can make.

Now that a Democratically controlled Congress is back in the business of oversight, we have learned that Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft, could be prickly in his dealings with the White House. Sometimes when the White House pushed, he pushed back. Ashcroft felt loyal not just to Bush but also to the Constitution and basic principles of justice. Apparently, no such conflict perturbs the dreams of Ashcroft’s hapless successor.

Did all this fly over the heads of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee? Of course not. But House Republicans evidently have made the cynical political calculation that to acknowledge reality would be to grant the Democrats some sort of victory. This, apparently, must be avoided at all costs.

So Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked Goodling: Why all the fuss about the eight U.S. attorneys whose dismissals sparked this entire probe? His probing follow-up: “Isn’t this an exercise of legitimate executive power which practically every president up to including the current one exercises all the time with officials within the executive branch subject to his appointment?”

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., was equally incisive in his questioning of Goodling: “Analogously, doesn’t a president have a right when he appoints an attorney general to expect him and the people in the Justice Department including civil servants to use the emphases that the president wants — to make the decisions in terms of priorities that the president wants? And isn’t that an appropriate thing, and is that the kind of thing that you did while you were in the department?”

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., ventured that the whole investigation “seems to be about the attempted criminalization of things that are vital to our constitutional system of government, namely the taking into consideration of politics in the appointment of political officials within the government. … Is there anything illegal about the president being served at his pleasure by the people he believes would be best?”

The service of justice went unmentioned.

How long will congressional Republicans close their eyes, cover their ears and try to pretend that it’s the Democrats who are being shamelessly partisan?

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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