By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's future is in doubt even if the Republicans retain control of the House because of unease among GOP lawmakers about his handling of the Foley page scandal and what a House ethics committee investigation might conclude about him, according to several Republican aides.
House Chief Deputy Whip Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) said last week that the House Republican leadership elections scheduled for Nov. 15 should be postponed until the ethics committee delivers its final report. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) confirmed yesterday on "Fox News Sunday" that he and Hastert have discussed that possibility. "We'll see how Tuesday goes and then we'll make some decisions."
But if Democrats seize control of the House in tomorrow's election, as many political analysts and pollsters are predicting, then Hastert is widely expected to exit the leadership stage and allow a new generation of Republican leaders to try to recapture the majority. Hastert, 64, the longest-serving Republican speaker, remains personally popular with House Republicans, but the discontent with his often lackadaisical, hands-off style is palpable.
"I believe that members have the highest regard for the speaker, his honesty, his integrity and his high ethical standards," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). "But the last two years have been very tough for us as a majority. There's no doubt about that. Certainly we need to have a better direction, vision and drive than we've had during the 109th Congress."
The speaker and his top aides' response to warnings that former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had for years been pursuing teenage male pages is part of an emerging pattern that is troubling Republican lawmakers.
In early 2004, as House Appropriations Committee investigators prepared to launch a sensitive audit of highly classified Capitol Hill security upgrades, Hastert's chief counsel made a surprise visit to the first meeting of the auditors.
His message was clear, according to participants: The speaker's office was not happy about the probe and would keep investigators on a tight leash. In September 2005, despite growing evidence of sweetheart deals, kickbacks, wasteful contracts and shoddy work, the probe was suddenly shut down.
Critics of Hastert say the incident -- reported by Congressional Quarterly last month -- is emblematic of a speaker's office dominated by powerful senior aides that has repeatedly thwarted aggressive policing of the inner workings of Congress. Two of Hastert's top aides -- chief of staff Scott Palmer and chief counsel Ted Van Der Meid -- had been warned about Foley's unimpeded pursuit of male pages long before ABC News broke the story Sept. 28. Hastert and his aides orchestrated a purge of the ethics committee in February 2005, after the committee admonished then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) for misconduct. And there have been massive cost overruns at a Capitol visitors center known derisively as "Hastert's Hole." A project once slated to cost $265 million now is expected to cost as much as $596 million.
All of these actions point to serious failures on the part of the speaker's office, critics say.
"All of the mechanisms that should be in place and used to protect the speaker and the House itself have been abridged because they just don't want to look," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.
Lisa C. Miller, a spokeswoman for the speaker, strenuously objected to the premise that Hastert has been a reluctant self-policeman or that there is growing dissatisfaction with Hastert's leadership within the Republican ranks. "Since Republicans have come into office, this House operates in a highly professional manner," she said. "We have vigorous oversight with annual auditing by an independent inspector general."
And those audits have produced eight consecutive clean bills of health, she said.
The turmoil has been mounting with Hastert largely off the stage. The speaker had expected to maintain a vigorous campaign schedule, but since the Foley scandal erupted, the former high school wrestling coach has kept largely out of sight. Boehner said that while Hastert has not granted many interviews, he made campaign appearances last week in Texas, Arizona and Florida. His Democratic opponent, a little-known challenger named John Laesch, has tried to capitalize on the swirling controversies. On Friday, Laesch posted a Web site, http://www.therealdenny.com , to raise questions about Hastert's leadership.
Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers, such as Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) have been quietly putting out calls suggesting they might throw their hats in the ring for leadership posts. On Saturday, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) announced that he, too, would be seeking a leadership post if a slot is available.
Miller blamed the discontent on ambition.
"It sounds like this is coming from folks who want the speaker's job," she said, "and when we win back the House on Tuesday, the speaker will run again."
The Foley scandal is foremost in members' minds, but what critics see as a lax attitude toward self-policing goes well beyond the Foley incident. The security investigation may be equally serious, Lilly suggested.
Since the Cold War days of the Kennedy administration, a highly secret organization has watched over the security of what is known as the Capitol campus, which includes the Capitol, the House and Senate office buildings and the Supreme Court. That organization got a renewed mission after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when hundreds of millions of dollars were channeled to it, mostly through the classified "black" budget of the House and Senate defense appropriations subcommittees.
In 2004, the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee and House defense appropriations subcommittees tasked contract investigators to look at contracting on highly classified security upgrades, especially air filtration systems being installed to protect the campus from chemical and biological attack. The scale of the upgrades is unprecedented, and so is the cost, likely to run more than $100 million, according to three different sources close to the project.
Concern had been raised that contracts were being steered to unqualified bidders, who were wooing the secret organization's management with Redskins tickets, expensive lunches, even golf clubs, said Ronald Garant, one of the investigators. But the more pressing issue was sheer waste and incompetence, he said. Another former appropriations committee investigator familiar with the probe said the team was told by a Lockheed Martin contractor that the filtration system being installed in the Ford House Office Building was so shoddy that the children in the building's day-care center would not stand a chance in the event of a chemical or biological attack.
In early 2004, Garant and other investigators went to Arlington to meet with the organization. To their surprise, Van Der Meid, the speaker's chief counsel, made the trip, too. Van Der Meid made it clear from the start that he did not want the probe going forward, according to Garant, a retired, former high-ranking auditor for the Defense Department's comptroller with more than 30 years of experience in government oversight.
Investigators were prevented from talking to key personnel, had access blocked to key facilities and could not inspect the equipment they were supposed to be assessing. After hitting roadblock after roadblock, Robert H. Pearre, the appropriations committee's chief of investigations, delivered the news last September that the investigation had been shut down and its offices in CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., were to be closed.
"We were told, 'Lock the door, change the combination, take your papers, bring them over here. It's all over,' " Garant said.
House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said some investigators were taken off the probe, but he said the study is ongoing. Republican aides familiar with the issue say Van Der Meid was not concerned about the investigation's findings but the investigators' cavalier attitudes toward a super-secret security effort. Former FBI agents did look at some of the charges of contractor abuse and determined they were inconsequential.
The Republican aides say the problem was with the investigators' attitudes. They said the fact that former investigators are discussing the probe of so secret a matter with reporters is proof that Van Der Meid's concerns about the investigators were warranted.