The House That Denny Built

His Republican colleagues called him "coach." He was the affable old guy who cared so much about young people that he dedicated the first half of his career to helping them. His presence in the Speaker's Office was reported by some to have had a calming effect on the institution after the highly acrimonious years of his predecessor and his repeated calls for "regular order" seemed to signal recognition that the body he was leading needed to be restored to a better place and time.

But the scene which took place at the Federal Court House in Chicago this morning leaves little doubt that John Dennis Hastert was a very different individual than the man we may have thought we knew as speaker. He was in fact a twisted soul who used the opportunities and authorities of a coach and teacher to sexually exploit and molest children.

That shocking reality should not only force us to see Dennis Hastert quite differently as an individual but also invites a second look at his speakership and the troubled period in which he served as the third highest public official in the nation. Just as Hastert abused his authority as a coach and teacher in the Yorkville, Illinois schools he in my judgment had a similar record as master of the House.

The Hastert era was a tumultuous period, a period in which Congress approved dramatic changes in the nation's tax laws, gave the Bush administration a green light to invade Iraq, saw the biggest budget surpluses in our nation's history turn into gigantic deficits and watched the country tumble into the steepest and longest economic downturn since the Great Depression in part because of catastrophic failure on the part of government regulatory agencies. Congress itself also changed dramatically during the Hastert speakership.

Committee chairmen and the entire congressional committee system became increasingly subjugated to direct daily supervision of their party leadership and in turn, the party caucus. As term limits forced chairmen to give up their gavels and place their future roles in Congress in the hands of their party leadership, the capacity of committees to make independent and fact based judgments largely vanished. Candidates to replace the outgoing chairmen were selected not simply on the basis of seniority and ability but also on their willingness to toe the party line, flack party rhetoric and perhaps most importantly use their new chairmanships to raise funds for the party campaign committee.

Speaker Hastert also instituted a new wrinkle in how the House conducts its business on the floor, a pledge to his fellow Republicans that continues to be known as the Hastert Rule. That pledge was to use the power of the speakership to prevent any legislation from being considered by the House unless it could be passed with solely Republican votes. That greatly empowered the most extreme members of the House Republican Conference essentially meaning that fewer than a dozen members collectively representing less than 3 percent of the American people could block any legislation with which they disagreed. Conversely it meant more than 200 members of the opposition party; members who collectively had been elected by more than 45 percent of the American people could never cast a single vote that would determine outcome legislation.
That pledge served to greatly widen the growing separation between the two major political parties. It further damaged the spirit of trust and cooperation necessary for the institution to fulfill its central responsibility under the Constitution, to find compromise and common ground between competing regions, economic interests and philosophies.

Hastert's tenure as Speaker saw not only a continued shifting of power away from House committees and into the hands of the leadership but also a dramatic subjugation of Congress to the executive branch, allowing Bush Administration policies to take effect without the normal review and due diligence that our Constitution was crafted to insure. Arguably, this became an important factor in a number of the major policy blunders during that administration.

Our Congress rarely devises the policies to cope with the major challenges we face as a nation. But the ability of Congress to force any administration to come forward with sufficient evidence to demonstrate the correctness of the course the executive has chosen is our central safeguard against the excessive and unwise use of executive power. It is a system that served us well for 200 years prior to Hastert's accepting the House gavel.

The small slaps and often little publicly noted criticisms that were part of the yearly legislative review of executive branch budgets, administrative performance and legislative proposals are far more important in our system of government than most people realize. Through the years, they have forced the White House, cabinet members and agency heads to pursue a more thoughtful approach to policy making, they have encouraged much needed mid-course corrections and at times even forced the abandonment of initiatives that were not achieving their intended purpose. While the two parties in Congress generally disagreed on a great deal, the one thing that they did agree on was that somebody needed to keep an eye on the executive branch. That effort was basically suspended for the 6 years that Bush was President and Hastert was Speaker.

Rather than accept his responsibilities as a leader of a coequal branch of government structured to insure a separation of powers and open and sometimes critical discourse on policy direction, Hastert seemed to do all he could to eliminate the separation. He actually even gave the Vice President office-space on the House side of the Capitol for the first time in American history. At times he seemed to believe that he worked for the Vice President.

I saw the influence of the Vice President over the Speaker and in turn over the Congress on several occasions. In one instance an investigation by the House Appropriations Committee into the millions of dollars being directed by the Defense Department to the Iraqi National Congress and its leader Ahmed Chalabi was blocked at the speaker's direction after the committee leadership had agreed on a bipartisan basis that an investigation was necessary. As a consequence, what we now know was deeply flawed intelligence continued to infect government decision making without challenge.

In another instance, Hastert reversed a committee decision to withhold a large amount of money requested by the Administration because the Administration had not provided sufficient evidence that those funds would actually be used for the purposes for which they had been requested. When the committee refused to provide the funds until the White House made clear what its purpose would be, Hastert intervened and in an 11th hour move directed the money be inserted in a conference report. The questions raised by the committee about how the funds would actually be used went unanswered.

The most widely noted change in the Congress during the Hastert era was the explosion in earmarking. To be fair, this like many of the changes that took place in the legislative process during the Hastert Speakership had its roots under the prior speaker. During the 105th Congress, the one immediately prior to Hastert's accession as speaker, there was a sudden and seemingly improbable (given the previous rhetoric of House Republicans on the subject) spike in the number of earmarks included in the regular appropriation bills. During the Hastert Speakership that upward trend went on steroids.

The Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriation bill (by far the largest domestic appropriation measure) had prior to 1996 contained few if any earmarks. The two Labor, HHS-Education bills passed in the Congress before Hastert became Speaker contained a combined total of 209 earmarks costing taxpayers a little less than $400 million. But in the following Congress under Speaker Hastert the Congress passed Labor, HHS bills containing more than 1700 earmarks and costing the taxpayer nearly $1.4 billion. The following Congress earmarking in Labor-HHS swelled to nearly 3500 earmarks at a cost of more than $1.9 billion.

A similar pattern could be observed throughout the appropriation process. In 2006, Congressional Research Service issued a report that found the number of earmarks contained in funding provided to the U.S. Department of Transportation increased from 147 the year before Hastert became speaker to 2,282 by 2004.

But the greatest bonanza in Congressional earmarks during the Hastert era did not occur in the annual appropriation bills. That bonanza was in the highway reauthorization legislation enacted in 2005, the one and probably only piece of legislation that moved through the House during Hastert's speakership that he appeared to take a direct and personal interest in. He actively shepherded that particular piece of legislation as though he were the chairman of the committee that had written the bill--a dramatic departure from his otherwise detached and at times disconnected involvement in other legislative matters before the House. On virtually every other piece of legislation it was up to his staff to think through the policy implications and iron out the jurisdictional and philosophical wrinkles.

But as Norm Ornstein and I outlined in a piece published in The New Republic in 2006, Hastert's activity on this legislation appears to have been driven by more than a desire to upgrade the nation's crumbling infrastructure. The bill contained a stunning 6,300 earmarks or more than $23 billion in congressionally mandated spending. One of the biggest of those 6,300 projects was $207 million for a new highway dubbed the "Prairie Parkway" that ran through the middle of Hastert's district. The project was not supported by the Illinois Department of Transportation and was actively opposed by local citizen organizations.

The most disturbing aspect of this earmark was a complex set of real estate purchases made by Hastert in the time period leading up to the consideration of the highway bill and the sale of a large portion of that real estate following shortly after its enactment. Hastert's net worth grew from less than $300,000 when was first elected to the House in 1998 to more than $6.2 million when he left office largely as a result of these transactions.

But a larger and even more troubling question has begun to haunt me regarding Hastert in light of the recent revelations about his abuse of power as a teacher and a coach. Was his repeated acquiescence to the Bush administration on matters of Congressional oversight more than simply ignorance about the role the legislative branch was called on by the Constitution to play in American Democracy? Was this former civics teacher really that clueless about why the framers of the Constitution had created the institution that he led? Bluntly, I began to wonder whether Hastert was so intent on passage of the highway bill and how it would affect him personally that he traded his Congressional prerogatives and responsibilities to secure its passage.

We may never know what motivated Hastert to suspend executive accountability but we do know that the Bush Administration did not come to support the disgraceful 2005 highway bill easily. We also know that the Bush Administration desperately sought to exclude the Congress from any interference or even knowledge of its policy setting.

The predecessor of the 2005 highway bill, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), expired in September of 2003. For more than a year before that expiration date Congress struggled but failed to reach agreement between the House, Senate and the White House on legislation to replace it. After the authorization expired, Congress was forced on eight occasions to pass temporary extensions to prevent the nation's road building from being brought to an immediate halt.

The central problem was that Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate wanted to spend more than the $256 billion proposed by the White House for the 6 year period that the bill was to be in effect. But earmarking was also a central issue. Even after the White House had agreed to a somewhat higher spending level the White House Statement of Administration Policy warned:

The Administration believes that the vast majority of federal-aid highway funds should be distributed to States via formula as States are far better equipped than the Federal Government to make appropriate decisions about their own transportation systems.

Following the bills signing the Department of Transportation Inspector General noted that 99 percent of the projects mandated by Congress were "either were not subject to the agencies' review and selection processes or bypassed the states' normal planning and programming processes."

When a bill was finally agreed to, Congressional Quarterly's headline expressed the surprise of many observers, "Bush Signs Highway Bill Despite Surge in Earmarks."

No one questioned who was responsible for the White House giving up its fight against the earmarking of highway funds and signing a bill that would eventually embarrass both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Illinois Transportation Secretary Timothy Martin summed it up, "I think it's truly a recognition of the leadership of Speaker Hastert...Speaker Hastert was able to deliver a bill that made it through Congress that the president could sign, rather than a bill that would make it through Congress that the president would veto."

So Hastert was responsible for both the administration's acquiescence on highway bill and for relaxing the customary level of oversight during the period that the highway bill was under consideration. We don't know that those two things were connected and perhaps we never will.

But we do know that the tenor and substance of how decisions were made by the federal government changed pretty dramatically during the time that Dennis Hastert held the House gavel. Partisanship became more intense. The House Committee System became dramatically weaker. The legislative process, despite the speaker's professed commitment to the "regular order" became increasingly irregular. Congressional oversight of executive performance almost vanished with Bush Administration flatly refusing to provide Congress with the information needed to assess performance and Hastert blocking the ability of committees to take the retribution necessary to force cooperation.

No one can project what mistakes might have been avoided had Hastert brought a more traditional view of the role of the legislative branch to the Speakership.

• Would greater scrutiny of the fiscal implications of the administration tax proposals resulted in scaling them back and avoiding the dramatic deterioration in the nation's fiscal well-being that occurred between 2001 and 2005? Probably not.

• Would demands for more specific information and tougher questioning forced the Bush White House to back away from plans to invade Iraq? Doubtful.

• Would forceful oversight of the Administration's post invasion strategy resulted in a more effective effort in protecting life, property and social cohesion in the newly liberated Iraq? Very likely.

• Would greater scrutiny of the role the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission slowed the unbridled growth of mortgage derivatives in the years leading up to the 2008 crash? Arguably.

• Would stronger oversight of the Federal Emergency Manage Administration and its leadership have reconciled some of the issues that we were forced to learn about only after Katrina had rolled across Louisiana? Very possibly.

I would argue that even in instances where better oversight would have not altered policy at the time it was made, it would have created a far better baseline to judge the quality of our decision making and improve it moving forward. Perhaps just as importantly, it would have educated a generation of House members about how the two branches should interact.

Today the House is a very different place than it was a quarter of a century ago. One constructive way of venting public frustration over its dysfunctionality is to look back on the changes that have taken place and look for ways to restore some of the attitudes, practices and relationships that made Congress work in the past. Understanding the changes that occurred during the Hastert era would be a good place to start that process.