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Speaker Hastert: The Vladimir Putin of American Politics

I have a full file of topics to write about in coming weeks, from the budget and Social Security to tax reform and homeland security. I would prefer to write about substantive topics and how they will be shaped by the dynamics in Congress; I don’t like to write nasty pieces about powerful lawmakers. But how can I not write about the terrible, embarrassing, outrageous breach of public trust by the Speaker on ethics, which followed the terrible, embarrassing, outrageous breach of public trust by the Republican Conference on ethics and the terrible, embarrassing, outrageous breach of public trust by the rules changes perpetrated on the House floor? [IMGCAP(1)]

A few weeks back, Quin Hillyer, an aide to then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), wrote “Broken Contract,” an interesting and powerful lament in The New Republic Online. He began with a story from the summer of 1987, when future Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) rode in Hillyer’s car while bragging about the “ethics offensive” he was about to launch that would spearhead a Republican House majority. Hillyer describes the ethics battles that followed, then notes that 10 years into “the GOP revolution that Gingrich started, the ethics of Congressional Republicans can only be described as, well, offensive.”

That was before Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) Wednesday Afternoon Massacre, when he formally ousted Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman of the ethics committee while also removing GOP Reps. Kenny Hulshof (Mo.) and Steven LaTourette (Ohio). Hefley was replaced by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

Presumably, Hastings wasn’t chosen lightly: Now that Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) has been moved over to the Ways and Means Committee, Hastings has his eye on the chairmanship of the Rules Committee in the 110th Congress, a post he can achieve if Hastert rewards him with it. And guess what would put the kibosh on Hastings’ ascension to chairman of the powerful Rules Committee?

In the meantime, Hulshof and LaTourette were succeeded by GOP Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas) and Tom Cole (Okla.), each of whom has donated generously to the legal defense fund of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — even as one ethics allegation against DeLay is unresolved and pending. No conflict there, is there?

So why was Hefley removed? The excuse given solemnly by the Speaker’s spokesman was that he had reached the term limit for chairmen, as if the Speaker’s hands were tied in this matter. Never mind the fact that Hefley had served as chairman for four years and that chairmanships have a six-year limit. If the Speaker’s hands were tied on this chairmanship, they were presumably tied on the chairmanship of the Rules Committee, where the Speaker’s consigliere, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), had already served six years. But somehow, Dreier was granted a waiver.

The real reason was articulated by the congenitally honest Hefley: “There is a bad perception out there that there was a purge in the committee and that people were put in that would protect our side of the aisle better than I did.”

As for Hulshof, he had not reached any term limits of membership on the committee at all; in fact, other GOP members who were asked to stay on had served longer. “I believe the decision was a direct result of our work in the last session,” Hulshof said, “particularly my chairing the investigative subcommittee” that examined ethics charges against DeLay. Hulshof, who described himself as “deeply disappointed,” said in a statement, “I strongly believe that my actions … were in keeping with the best traditions of the U.S. House of Representatives. … I wholeheartedly stand behind my subcommittee’s findings and do not apologize for my actions.”

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the ever-imaginative John Feehery, until recently the spokesman for Hastert, said that replacing Hulshof was not connected to the DeLay matter and that the Speaker simply wanted fresh faces on the panel. “It wasn’t really removing him,” Feehery said. “It was more like relieving him of his duty. The Speaker doesn’t like to have people who are such talented legislators like him have to spend so much time on ethics.” Let me translate that statement for you: “Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes?”

This set of steps — timed to coincide with the State of the Union, thus receiving limited media coverage — follows earlier ones that sought to systematically neutralize the ethics process. The initial moves — including erasing the rule that automatically removes a leader who was indicted by a non-federal court and requiring a narrow, formal violation of a specific House rule to bring any ethics charge against a Member — were dropped after a large public outcry, but not because they reconsidered and decided they had been wrong. The real reason, as several Members have suggested privately, is that the leaders, including DeLay, feared being rebuffed on the floor by a united Democratic opposition joined by enough embarrassed Republicans to make a moral majority.

Those changes were withdrawn, but the most outrageous ethics rules change — one that allows either party acting alone to block any ethics investigation — was adopted. Hastert’s move, in due course, all but guarantees a pliant Republican Party delegation on the panel.

This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. It is not as if the ethics panel under Hefley was some kind of avenging angel running amuck in the House. The committee had tried mightily to avoid taking on major controversies and to keep itself mostly out of sight. The longstanding, implicit conspiracy by all House Members to keep from bringing any charges against any other Member — styled as a “truce” but enforced as a lid — left the committee mostly inactive. But when it was forced to take up the various allegations against DeLay, the Members on the ethics panel rose to the occasion, remembering their oaths, and did a thorough and assiduous job, and one for which Hulshof deserves particular commendation. Read the report: It is thorough, carefully reasoned and fair — and very, very tough in its conclusions.

In this House, under this Speaker, ethics members who are thorough and fair are soon turned into ex-members. Of course, for a Republican majority that reached its position in significant measure by slamming the ethical insensitivity of the longtime Democratic majority, the recent effort to kill the ethics process in the House and to shield its powerful Majority Leader from any problems is rank hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is the least of it. The Speaker, enabled by far too many of his colleagues and driven by the zeal to stay in power, has become the Vladimir Putin of American politics, dismantling the regular order and debasing the integrity of the institution, justifying the unjustifiable by the credo that the ends justify the means.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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