Could a guilty plea from the longest-serving Republican speaker in the history of the House strengthen calls for Congress to adopt stronger ethics laws? Watchdogs are split.
“No,” said Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee. “I wish, but no.” With former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s forthcoming guilty plea related to an alleged hush money scheme that skirted federal banking laws, it could bring to light not only his own misconduct but also his record as the top administrative officer in the House.
Hastert lost the top job when the party was ousted from power in 2006, in part because he failed to respond to mounting allegations of misbehavior among Republican congressmen. The scandal surrounding powerhouse lobbyist Jack Abramoff proved a major political liability for the party in races across the country.
“His legacy is one of failure,” said Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton.
Public Citizen’s Craig Holman had a different view of the plea deal, which, while the details of the agreement are still unknown, could potentially put the Illinois Republican behind bars.
“It will definitely help strengthen our influence on Congress,” Holman said.
While the indictment that has further soiled Hastert’s legacy alleges wrongdoing after his tenure in Congress — that he violated banking laws and lied to the FBI — entering a guilty plea in his next court appearance on Oct. 28, will undoubtedly only further tarnish the public’s view of the institution.
“Certainly it adds to the perception, which I think is a correct one, that Washington is corrupt,” Fitton said.
These days, the top priority for watchdogs across the ideological spectrum is campaign finance reform. Conservatives, like Fitton, say contribution limits are the problem. McGehee and other liberal voices say billionaires have too much influence.
But there is broad agreement among the good-government community that in his role as speaker, Hastert did not go far enough to restore public faith in the integrity of Congress. And the perception has only gotten worse.
“We need to reform the rules so that it is clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is ethically acceptable,” Hastert said in January 2006, unveiling a plan to restrict lobbyists from footing the bill for members’ meals. His proposal came 10 days after Texas Republican Tom DeLay announced his resignation as House majority leader, and it was excluded from the watered-down ethics bill passed five months later.
Hastert also endorsed a ban on congressional travel paid for by corporations, nonprofit groups and trade associations in response to the scandal surrounding Abramoff. But the rank and file resisted efforts to limit those perks.
“The Republican caucus in the House was assuring their colleagues that they really didn’t have to pass these ethics rules, because voters just don’t care about ethics,” said Holman, who was intimately involved in drafting the legislation.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi promised to “clean up the swamp … and that message had resonance,” Fitton said. “It’s hard to say that whatever pretend reforms they implemented after the fall of DeLay were sufficient — they certainly weren’t.”
On the first day of the 110th Congress, the House approved an ethics rules package. It was combined with a similar set of rule changes in the Senate to form the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.
The bill established prohibitions on certain gifts from lobbyists and privately sponsored trips. It also led to the creation of the Office of Congressional Ethics. But because the package was part of a rules change, “long knives” come out at the beginning of every Congress.
“Largely, our influence has been waning over time,” Holman said, recalling how his phone started “ringing off the hook” as the Abramoff probe spread. “After an ethics scandal fades away, Congress tends to forget about it.”
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