Closed ranks a risk to GOP
House Republican leaders consolidated their power by protecting their own. But in the wake of scandals, those tactics threaten to undo them.
By WES ALLISON
Published October 8, 2006
WASHINGTON — For almost eight years, the U.S. House has been led by Dennis Hastert, a former wrestling coach from Illinois who was tapped to bring a steady hand and integrity to the job, and who has presided over unprecedented prosperity for the Republican majority of Congress.
In the process, Hastert and his leadership team also have presided over a dramatic evolution in how the House of Representatives works, consolidating power to an extent that hasn’t been seen in 100 years.
Now Hastert is embattled. His majority — and his job — are at risk for the first time, threatened by questions about how his office handled flirty, if not salacious, e-mails that former Florida Rep. Mark Foley sent to a former congressional page last fall, and whether Hastert or his staff failed to act on tips that Foley had inappropriate contact with other teenage pages as well.
In handling the scandal, some Republican lawmakers, conservative leaders and other critics say, the very tools that Hastert and his team have used to maintain control — closing ranks, marginalizing Democrats, protecting their own — now threaten to be their undoing.
“It fits entirely the leadership record of Speaker Hastert, which is dominated by partisan and ideological considerations, and one in which institutional maintenance and protection plays a decidedly less important role,’’ said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar and co-author of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America.
Critics also say it is the latest in a string of examples in which closing ranks appears to have taken precedence over the ideals that Republicans espoused when they gained control of the U.S. House 12 years ago.
Take, for instance, what happened when it became clear last winter that then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay was likely to be indicted in a Texas campaign finance scandal: House leaders jettisoned a key piece of their earlier reforms, changing a rule that bans indicted members from holding Republican leadership positions.
The outcry forced them to retreat, but many conservatives inside and outside the House saw the attempt as an ominous sign. Another came when Hastert purged members of the House Ethics Committee who had reprimanded DeLay, and replaced its long-standing chairman.
Bruce Fein, a former Reagan appointee to the Justice Department who remains prominent in conservative circles, said the Foley scandal has added to a sense of “growing discontent’’ with House leaders among conservatives.
“They have lost their way,’’ he said.
In November 2005, after the St. Petersburg Times called to ask about e-mails Foley had sent a 16-year-old former congressional page from the office of Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander, a staffer for Alexander did what one might expect: He called the speaker’s office.
Hastert’s aides directed the matter to the House clerk’s office, which oversees the page program, and to Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., chairman of the House Page Board, which was established after a sex scandal involving pages and two House members roiled the Capitol in the 1980s.
Shimkus and the House clerk talked to Alexander’s office, who said the boy’s parents didn’t want to pursue the matter, or even share the e-mails, in which Foley asked the boy to send a picture. They just wanted the contact from Foley to stop.
The pair confronted Foley. He insisted he was just being friendly, and agreed to cease contact.
Had they or Hastert’s staff informed the lone Democrat on the page board, Rep. Dale Kildee, the Republicans would have inoculated themselves against allegations of trying to cover it up, members said.
But they never mentioned the matter to Kildee or the other member of Congress on the board. Nor did House leaders seek to interview current or former pages about Foley, which almost certainly would have yielded more troubling stories about his association with teenage pages.
Some Republican members now say both decisions were mistakes that could cost them the majority after November’s elections.
“That has been the style, to keep it within, and the case of DeLay and the Ethics Committee is the classic example. And this kind of fits that — let’s keep it inside, let’s not even talk to the Democrats about it,’’ said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has criticized the leadership’s penchant for doling out pork, or funding for pet projects, in exchange for members’ votes. “That really hasn’t served us that well.”
For two years, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, insisted he had done nothing wrong, even as he was linked to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the Republican leadership stood by him. Last month, Ney agreed to plead guilty to two federal bribery charges related to the case. He faces as much as 10 years in prison.
The House leadership still hasn’t asked Ney to resign, although he did relinquish two House committee positions in September.
Similarly, House leaders stood by then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, allowing him to keep his seat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, even as evidence mounted that he had taken bribes from defense contractors. He pleaded guilty to bribery and other charges in November and is now in federal prison.
After Cunningham’s conviction, amid the ongoing investigation into the Abramoff scandal, Hastert pledged to revamp House rules on lobbying and ethics. Yet the House has made only minor progress in doing so.
And then there’s DeLay. Aside from purging the Ethics Committee and trying to change the rules to allow him to keep his job, Hastert initially ignored demands from other Republicans to ask DeLay, a close friend, to permanently relinquish his leadership post or to call for new elections.
“It’s a pattern of basically — I don’t want to sound like a Democrat — but it is a pattern of a certain amount of arrogance and closeness,’’ said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
“When you have a culture of closeness, sometimes you feel like you should continue to be closed when controversy comes up. You think that can resolve problems … like with Foley. I think they are learning their lesson the hard way.’’
DeLay resigned permanently as majority leader in January. Republicans rejected a DeLay protege, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, as his replacement and instead picked John Boehner, R-Ohio, who promised to reform lobbying and to crack down on pork, as well as to listen to members’ concerns.
Although Boehner has generally received high marks from his colleagues, dissatisfaction with the leadership has lingered, and was exacerbated last week by the Foley scandal. So, too, have the methods Hastert and DeLay used to consolidate their power.
In their book Broken Branch, Mann, senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institute, and Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, document changes in procedures of the Rules Committee, an arm of leadership, designed to give leaders more control over bills that reach the floor.
More bills are sent to the floor under closed rules, where amendments cannot be offered, which limits the ability of rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats to affect legislation. More bills also are replaced by versions tweaked by leadership, Mann said. This essentially renders moot the deliberation and compromise that occurred at the committee level.
Meanwhile, the House leadership has increased control over the committee system. No longer are chairmen simply appointed by seniority; instead, they must demonstrate ideological compatibility with leadership and their willingness to raise money for their colleagues and party. Adding term limits to chairmanships has cut their power as well.
At first, Flake said, this helped balance a system that was lopsidedly in favor of committees. Not so anymore.
“I think it can be said that the pendulum has swung a little too far to leadership,’’ he said.
Hastert, 64, was a surprise pick for speaker when he got the job in 1999. Newt Gingrich had quit after Republicans lost five seats in the 1998 elections, contrary to his predictions that they would pick up 30. Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston was tapped to replace him, but he quit after revelations about an extramarital affair.
So in a move largely engineered by DeLay, the House turned to Hastert, a mild-mannered, well-liked teacher and coach from Plano, Ill.
Unlike Gingrich, Hastert eschews the limelight, preferring to work behind the scenes. Unlike DeLay, he has never been a lightning rod for criticism. But his low-key nature also hid the degree of dissatisfaction that has been building against his leadership in the past year, both within the Congress and without.
Hastert is well-liked personally by House members. He gets high marks for brokering compromise within his caucus and for his dedication to individual members. But some say he has been too slow to react to crisis, as with DeLay.
They now worry that how his office initially handled the Foley e-mails in November, before lurid instant messages to pages were made public, could hurt them in next month’s elections.
Many conservative leaders also blame Hastert for the leadership’s unwillingness to cut federal spending and its practice of doling out money for pet projects to help members politically, or to win their votes on close bills.
“That’s the single most common sense of betrayal on the Hill among some members, and among conservative leaders — that spending heals all wounds,’’ said Mike Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
On June 1, Hastert passed Rep. Joseph “Uncle Joe’’ Cannon as the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House. Like Hastert, Cannon was from Illinois, and he is widely considered to be the most powerful of all speakers.
He single-handedly chose committee chairmen. He was Rules Committee chairman, giving him great control over legislation and debate. And in 1910, weary of his autocratic ways, a bipartisan coalition voted to strip much of his power.
The following year, Republicans lost the House.
“Tom DeLay used him as an example of the model that they wanted, and they came close,’’ Thurber said. “You can’t govern that way. And in the future, if the Democrats take over, they can’t govern that way, either.’’
Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes com or (202) 463-0577.