Maybe one thing would be more shocking to Hill long-timers than the lurid criminal charges confronting the previous Republican speaker of the House: A personal scandal taking down the current Republican speaker of the House.
John A. Boehner has worked assiduously to bring a glass-house lifestyle to the Capitol. He’s been a dogmatic behind-the-scenes disciplinarian with GOP colleagues who have lost their moral bearings. So it’s almost impossible to imagine he’d get caught in the same sort of misbehavior for which he’s shown zero tolerance among the troops.
The Ohioan’s approach now looks very much like a lesson learned from his predecessor’s shortcomings. There’s no suggestion Boehner knew about J. Dennis Hastert’s well-hidden alleged behavior in Illinois from decades ago. Instead, he seems to be compensating for the quite passive — and politically destructive — approach Hastert took toward colleagues’ ethical failings when he was in charge of the House.
Hastert is due at the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago on June 9, to be arraigned on charges he skirted banking regulations and lied to the FBI in a bid to hide plans to pay $3.5 million in hush money, reportedly to a person whom he sexually abused while teaching high school history and coaching wrestling.
The allegations have genuinely astonished virtually everyone who worked for, legislated with, wrote about or sought to lobby Hastert in Congress, from when he was a backbench freshman in 1987 to his eight years as second in the line of presidential succession. The surprise was not only because of the disconnect between his affable public persona and the purported unseemliness in his private life. It was also because no hint of skeletons in his closet surfaced until eight years after Hastert left office, despite extensive background investigations by the press and expensive opposition research by the Democrats.
At the same time, the criminal case may have provided something of an “Aha!” moment for Republicans still lamenting Hastert’s go-slow approach toward scandal. And Boehner is obviously the most influential in that group.
The two were simultaneously elevated into the top tier of the House leadership 20 years ago, after Boehner was elected GOP conference chairman and Hastert was appointed chief deputy whip. Boehner was expelled from the high command for a time, but mounted a comeback to be majority leader in early 2006, giving him a front-row seat as his party’s slide out of power was accelerated by a series of ethical bombshells.
Rep. Tom DeLay, Hastert’s mentor, resigned as majority leader to fight criminal campaign finance charges back home in Texas, while two of Delay’s former top aides pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in an influence-peddling investigation centered on the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, pleaded guilty to felony charges in the Abramoff affair. And a senior appropriator, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes in return for promising earmarks to defense contractors.
All the while, Hastert expressed next to nothing publicly by way of disapproval. His standing in the leadership seemed secure anyway — until the Hill’s first sexting scandal broke a month before the 2006 midterm elections. Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida resigned after it emerged he’d been sending explicit and solicitous emails and texts for several years to teenage boys who were current and former House pages. Hastert acknowledged knowing about the messages but deciding against a thorough investigation.
A nine-week Ethics Committee inquiry concluded he broke no rules, but it took him to task for failing to do more to protect the pages. By that time, the GOP had lost the House and Senate, and Hastert’s apparent blindness or disinterest in the “culture of corruption” in the ranks meant he was finished in leadership.
The history helps to explain the totally different approach of his successor as the top House Republican. Boehner has displayed a sort of dispassionate impatience for colleagues’ misbehavior. Time and again, he’s made clear he’s in favor of applying the political death penalty quickly to those in the caucus whose transgressions threaten the advancement of “the team.”
As minority leader in 2010, Boehner made sure Rep. Mark Souder quit Congress days after learning the “family values” Indiana conservative was having an affair with a part-time aide. (The jig was up after they were caught in a compromising position in a parked car.) Weeks after becoming speaker, he acted even more quickly to compel the resignation of Rep. Chris Lee of New York, who stepped down three hours after his shirtless Craigslist solicitations for companionship went viral.
Since then, the speaker has personally admonished several Republicans members to “knock it off” when gossip and ridicule got back to him about their carousing with female lobbyists at downtown steakhouses.
Last spring, when a grainy security videotape surfaced of Rep. Vance McAllister making out with the scheduler in his Louisiana district office, Boehner effectively brought the curtain down on the freshman’s nascent career with a few words. “I expect all members to be held to the highest ethical standards, and this is no different,” he said. “He’s got decisions that he has to make.”
And this spring, he made clear he had no patience for the escalating questions about Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock’s office decorations, official photographer and expense accounts. “If somebody’s going to violate the rules, they’re going to violate the rules,” Boehner said after Schock resigned. “In almost every case, sooner or later, it catches up to you.”
The bottom line is, nothing close to Hastert’s style of benign neglect is in the Boehner ethical playbook. In fact, the speaker hasn’t even been willing to toss his own predecessor a pro forma innocent-until-proven-guilty rhetorical lifeline.
“The Denny I served with worked hard on behalf of his constituents and the country,” was all Boehner said in a statement issued more than a day after the Hastert indictment was announced last week. “I’m shocked and saddened to learn of these reports.”