June 1, 2006 -- -- In the rift between Congress and the Justice Department, Americans side overwhelmingly with law enforcement: Regardless of precedent and the separation of powers, 86 percent say the FBI should be allowed to search a Congress member's office if it has a warrant.
That view is broadly bipartisan, this ABC News poll finds, ranging from 78 percent among Democrats to 94 percent of Republicans.
The issue erupted last week, after the FBI searched the offices of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., in a corruption investigation. Congress leaders objected, and George W. Bush put a 45-day hold on the seized documents to allow for negotiations.
The issue arises at a time of various investigations of alleged wrongdoing in Congress, including those focused on the activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Indeed this poll finds broad public skepticism about congressional ethics: Sixty-five percent of Americans give a negative rating to the ethics and honesty of members of Congress. More, 54 percent, rate their own member's ethics positively, but that's down from 69 percent in a 1989 poll.
Nonetheless, support for FBI searches is about equally high whether people see Congress as honest or not. That suggests that the interests of law enforcement to investigate wrongdoing simply prevails in the public's mind over concerns about separation of powers, precedent, and the possibility prosecutors could use such searches to try to intimidate lawmakers. The question in this poll described both sides of the argument.
Politically, the Democrats have a small edge in perceived honesty, but there's not much advantage for either party on this issue. Sixteen percent of Americans think Democrats are generally more ethical and honest than Republicans; nine percent think the opposite. But most by far -- 72 percent -- say there isn't much difference between them.
However slight, that seven-point Democratic edge is their best in occasional polls over the last 17 years.
Views of the honesty of Congress overall have fluctuated over the years, but haven't been positive in polls since 1989. At its best, in 1990, 46 percent rated Congress as ethical and honest. Today just 27 percent do so, quite similar to the levels in 1995 and 1993 (24 and 29 percent, respectively.).
This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone May 26-30, 2006, among a random national sample of 1,044 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Field work by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.
To see the complete results of this poll, click here.