New Speaker Needs to Avoid Fallout from Hastert Era (The Hill)

Meredith McGehee
Oct 30, 2015
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A plea agreement will likely send former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to jail for charges related to a hush-money scandal.  The details of the conduct that prompted Hastert to begin paying hush money have not been made public, but paying $3.5 million in hush money certainly implies reprehensible behavior.  

Hastert’s professional legacy, like his personal one, is in tatters.  His time on Capitol Hill helped to undermine the reputation of the body he led as Speaker and the reverberations are still being felt today.  The so-called “Hastert Rule” is inextricably linked to the chaos currently engulfing the House Republican caucus and the blind eye he turned toward ethical abuses continues to dog his fellow Representatives.  These legacies have damaged the House as an institution but can and should be repaired by whoever succeeds the current Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).   

Under Hastert, the House Republican Conference adopted the “Hastert Rule” – an agreement among the Republicans that the House would only pass bills supported by a majority of the majority.  They would not advance legislation that required Democratic votes for passage, even though the measure might have widespread support among Republicans or a majority of the House.   

This hyper-partisan approach harms our democracy and continues to play a detrimental role in polarizing the House and should be jettisoned by the new Speaker. 

The Hastert Rule has de facto imported into the U.S. one of the weaknesses that is more commonly found in proportional representation systems of government – the empowerment of a minority of extremist representatives, who then play “kingmaker.”  Political scientists have long been concerned about the weakness this “kingmaker” feature brings to a legislative body. 

In the current situation, the empowered extremists are the members of the House Freedom Caucus who are insisting on an ultra conservative Speaker.  These caucus members wield power disproportionate to their numbers in the House and to the number of Americans they represent.  The power is even more distorted due to effects of gerrymandering, which in too many states produces non-competitive districts.  Primaries have become more important than the general election, with primary voters who are more extreme and push both Democrats and Republicans to the fringes and often beyond. 

The ethical misconduct by Republicans under Hastert’s Speakership cost the party its majority.  During his tenure, he allowed former Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to run rampant, undertaking questionable efforts to cement a Republican majority which ultimately led to DeLay’s conviction on money laundering and conspiracy charges.  While those convictions were subsequently overturned, the admonishment by the House Ethics Committee stood:  the then-Majority Leader “created the appearance that donors were being provided with special access to Representative DeLay regarding the then-pending energy legislation.”  The Committee also found he misused federal resources during the battle over Texas redistricting. 

It was also on Hastert’s watch that Jack Abramoff, king of lobbying scandals and corruption, wined and dined committee chairmen, underwrote luxurious junkets and generally threw money around Washington and to members of Congress and their staffs.  The Washington Post described the years leading up to the Republicans’ loss of the House as marked by a “rash of scandals tainting GOP incumbents in several states.”  The ethics standards sank so low during the Hastert regime that the House Democrats successfully campaigned on cleaning up the ethics mess in Washington. In 2007, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) assumed office saying the Democrats “intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.” 

We now may have some insight into why Speaker Hastert seemed so reluctant to make ethics issues a bigger focus of his Speakership.  Mired in his own sordid scandal, Hastert was in no position to speak out about high ethical standards. Ultimately, Boehner took the Speaker’s gavel and he shared Hastert’s contempt for an ethics watchdog.  He originally called the idea for an Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) “childish.”  To his credit, once OCE was created, Boehner didn’t abolish the Office, though some members from both parties have urged him to do so.  But he also has failed to strengthen the House ethics process.  The most critical step would be to give the OCE subpoena power.   

The new Speaker should embrace the important role that OCE plays in building public confidence in the institution.  During the recent investigation into the questionable trips by a bipartisan group of Members and staff, several members failed to cooperate with OCE investigators, for which there is no excuse.  It’s no wonder the American people have lost faith in what is supposed to be ‘The People’s House’. 

Whoever is able to cobble together the 218 votes to become the new Speaker should think long and hard about continuing the misguided legacies of Speaker Hastert.  

The new Speaker should do away with the Hastert Rule and get the House moving again – doing the people’s business.  And, both the House Republican Conference and House Democratic Caucus should pass a new rule stating that, in order to be a member of good standing, every member must cooperate with the OCE in its investigations or face sanctions for stonewalling. 

McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.  This opinion piece was originally published in The Hill on October 23, 2015. To read it there, click here.

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