Speaker Largely Silent Amid Scandal

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has held the House's top post since 1999.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has held the House's top post since 1999. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

With his affable demeanor and his open-door policy, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert remains unchallenged in the most powerful post in Congress, even as a growing corruption scandal roils the Republican leadership and more Congress-watchers say the speaker bears some responsibility for the troubles that have developed on his watch.

As details emerged about unsavory dealings between lobbyists and lawmakers -- including his top lieutenant, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) -- the House speaker stood on the sidelines. As DeLay's legal peril mounted, Hastert backed him at every turn, attempting to change House rules to allow an indicted leader to stay in power and even altering the leadership of the ethics committee, which had been exposing misconduct by the majority leader.

Only now has Hastert publicly moved to address the ethics controversy, leading a push to tighten rules on lobbying and persuading Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) to temporarily relinquish the chairmanship of the House Administration Committee.

Although Hastert's job appears safe for now, there are rumblings among some lawmakers and aides that he waited too long to act -- and that his prior conduct has eluded close inspection, even when the speaker himself rubbed elbows with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients.

"I suppose that DeLay was simply a much more inviting target for the [Democrats], so Hastert is left alone," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "Maybe people will start focusing on Hastert now."

Hastert and his staff "take this laissez-faire attitude on things," grumbled one Republican source close to the House leadership. "They don't respond when things are bending, but they get very excited when they break."

DeLay's announcement this month that he had permanently withdrawn from the House GOP leadership after his indictment on political money-laundering charges has touched off a scramble among Republicans for practically every high-level leadership post except that of speaker. Hastert, an amiable onetime high school wrestling coach, enjoys tremendous personal loyalty from many in the House GOP conference, and he has been credited with holding together the sometimes warring factions within the party.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), one of those calling for a major shake-up of the House GOP leadership, stressed that there is a consensus within the conference that "we totally support Speaker Hastert."

Yet some watchdog organizations have said Hastert deserves scrutiny. After all, they note, Hastert signed a letter to the interior secretary in 2003 on behalf of one of Abramoff's Indian tribe clients days after a fundraiser for Hastert at Abramoff's posh Washington restaurant, Signatures. Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, said that the same easygoing personality and small-town attitude that Hastert has used to maintain the loyalty of colleagues have enabled him to skate through the unfolding scandal.

"What these scandals are revolving around is a way of life that does not appear to be Hastert's way of life," Wertheimer said. "That may be the principal reason why this scandal does not inure to him."

After years as a friendly backbencher and low-level leadership member, Hastert suddenly emerged to become House speaker in 1999. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) was drummed out of the post after a disastrous election season, and his heir apparent, Bob Livingston (La.), resigned amid allegations of an extramarital affair. DeLay, then majority whip, shepherded Hastert from the post of his chief deputy to a position two steps from the presidency.

Hastert took a laid-back attitude to his job, opening his door to lawmakers, soothing hurt feelings, fixing problems and holding the party together while the bare-knuckled DeLay, first as whip and then as majority leader, drove the political agenda. To some lawmakers, it was a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine.

But the limits of the arrangement began to emerge in the fall of 2004. That was when Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) approached Hastert aides with a proposal pregnant with possible political consequences: A Democratic prosecutor in Texas, Ronnie Earle, was closing in on DeLay, and the majority leader wanted to change Republican rules to allow a leader indicted by a state grand jury to retain his post.

Some on Hastert's staff feared that the change could have disastrous political consequences, former DeLay and Hastert aides say. But Hastert, dreading confrontation and trusting DeLay's political instincts, deferred to his second-in-command. The ethics rules change touched off a political firestorm, and within a few months it was repealed.

Even when DeLay's ethical problems began bursting into the open, Hastert maintained a low profile. DeLay was admonished three times by the House ethics committee for improper conduct, including the use of the Federal Aviation Administration to help track down Democratic Texas lawmakers who had left the state to avoid a vote on a redistricting plan engineered by DeLay.

Then when Earle began an investigation of the fundraising associated with DeLay's campaign to pass the redistricting plan, Hastert became increasingly involved in efforts to protect DeLay -- both out of loyalty and out of deference, former leadership aides said. DeLay aides at the time concede that Hastert felt uneasy occasionally, especially on the rules change for indictments. But when such confrontations arise, Hastert and his aides usually refer them to the Republican conference at large and let the issues sort themselves out, rather than stepping in to resolve them swiftly. And the conference is where DeLay held almost unchecked power.

"Tom, as powerful as he was, would truly have deferred to the speaker. He really would have," said one former DeLay aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid crossing Hastert. But he said that Hastert is a consensus-maker. "He doesn't like to rule by fiat," the former aide said. "He wasn't blind to what was happening, but he fundamentally saw it as DeLay's role to deal with these things."

Scrutiny may be coming, Flake cautioned, now that DeLay is no longer in the leadership. Wertheimer of Democracy 21, in a Nov. 22 letter to House ethics committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), called for a prompt investigation into the events of June 2003, when Hastert held a fundraiser at Signatures, which brought in at least $21,500, much of it from Abramoff's tribal clients. A week later, the speaker signed a letter to Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, urging her to reject a request from a rival tribe for a new casino.

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said the speaker has no connection to Abramoff, but he does have a long history of opposing efforts by Indian tribes to shop for strategic locations in Illinois to build casinos. When Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) asked him to sign a letter to block the efforts of the Jena band of Choctaw Indians, "he was more than happy to do so," Bonjean said, adding that the action had nothing to do with the fundraiser.

Even those requesting the investigation have no expectation that it will happen, Wertheimer said. That is because for a year now, the ethics committee -- officially known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct -- has been crippled by rules changes muscled through with the speaker's help. Bonjean said Hastert thought the previous rules were not fair to the members.

Hastert removed the panel's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), in February 2004, replacing him with Hastings, who was closer to leadership and had handled other sensitive tasks for the speaker.

Bonjean said Hefley had reached the end of his term limit, although Hefley himself said the action amounted to a purge.

The flurry of activity may look unseemly now, one former leadership aide said, but each one seemed reasonable at the time and nobody was looking at the big picture.

"In hindsight, you may be able to see how things could have been handled differently," said Dan Mattoon, a former Hastert aide. "But part of that is the hand that's dealt, with the speaker trying to govern, trying to be fair to Tom, but trying to be fair to the conference and the issues that they deserve to have heard, too."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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