It's time for Dennis Hastert to go.
Rep. Hastert, R-Ill., ought to announce sooner rather than later that he will not be a candidate for re-election as Speaker of the House when the next Congress convenes in January, 2007. He should do so for reasons both principled and purely political. He should do so because, in practical terms, his effectiveness is reaching -- or probably has already reached -- an end.
And the recent embarrassment of his wild over-reaction to the FBI's search of Rep. William Jefferson's office is merely the 100-pound load that, combined with tons of ethical dead-weight, broke the elephant's back.
The first reason Hastert should make this his last term as Speaker is to fulfill a promise he and his colleagues made when Republicans first took a House majority in 1995. That promise, abandoned as part of a larger fit of House GOP hubris in early 2003, was that the Speaker would be limited to four consecutive terms in that particular leadership post.
This pledge was no mere passing thought. It was an important part of the reformist initiative of the congressional GOP class of 1994. The idea, formalized in House rules in 1995, was to avoid a centralization of and aggrandizement of national power in any one set of hands that the nation's voters never had the chance to approve directly. The rule served to unify those upstart Republicans who wanted term limits on all congressmen and those who believed, as did James Madison and many of his fellow Founders, that limiting the terms of legislators would be an anti-republican restriction on the ability of the citizenry to choose its favorite representatives.
Even many of the latter group accepted the idea that an undue concentration of power within Congress, as opposed to a restriction on the people's ability to choose their own congressmen, was subversive of many elements of republican theory. An endlessly renewable Speakership surely is evidence of what Madison (in Federalist 48) called "the danger from legislative usurpations, which, by assembling all power in the same hands, must lead to the same tyranny as is threatened by executive usurpations."
In short, the idea of a term-limited Speaker was a wise application of age-old principles to the modern experience of abuses of power by self-selected congressional elites.
ALAS, THE CONGRESSIONAL GOP FORGOT its principles along the way, on multiple fronts. At the beginning of 2003, the Republican caucus eliminated the term limit on the speaker, relaxed the limits on gifts and food to members and staff by about ten-fold, and relaxed restrictions on travel paid by outside sources. Republicans also changed arcane rules in such a way as to further limit the ability of the Democratic minority to propose, much less pass, alternative legislative ideas.
And with Hastert leading the way, Republicans engaged in a series of floor votes in which they trampled all traditions of appropriate time limits, not to mention their own promises, while twisting arms (and allegedly worse) to finally, belatedly, and unfairly pass legislation that a majority of the House originally opposed. The worst example, but far from the only one, occurred in the three-hour pre-dawn vote to pass the hideously expensive prescription drug benefit for Medicare.
Thus did Hastert institute a culture of brute power in the House divorced from both rules and tradition, not to mention consistency. As term limits on the Speaker were dropped, Hastert himself used the excuse of term limits to force out independent-minded Joel Hefley as chairman of the House's ethics committee. (Even Hastert's reading of the ethics term limit rule was tendentious: Hefley's stint as chairman had lasted only four years, not the prescribed limit of six.) Yet at the very same time he was citing term limits to force out Hefley, Hastert waived term limits to keep the slavish David Dreier as chairman of the House Rules Committee two years longer than the rules ordinarily allow.
All of this is only background, mind you, to explain just how long, and how pervasively, Hastert has exhibited the arrogance of power that leaves him clueless both as to ethical concerns and as to the political damage such arrogance can cause to his own party. The House GOP's hubristic culture, the culture that makes its members feel immune to expected mores and to any blowback from a disgusted public -- the culture that, even after the Abramoff and DeLay scandals, makes them unwilling to pass serious reforms on ethics, lobbyist disclosure, and earmarks -- is what has led the House overall into even-worse poll ratings than the stupendously low scores President George W. Bush has been receiving in recent months.
Now comes Speaker Hastert, at the very first moment where House Republicans can push back against an image of corruption, to step all over both the law and especially the politics in order to assert a highly dubious congressional privilege. As if Congress doesn't already look privileged enough.
READERS WILL BY NOW, OF COURSE, be familiar with the crazily loud and intemperate complaints shouted by Hastert about the FBI's duly warranted search of Rep. Jefferson's office. Legal opinion is somewhat fractured on the constitutional issues involved, but the dozens of both conservative and liberal experts who have pronounced the search perfectly valid does indicate, at the very least, that Hastert's assertion of legal privilege from such searches is far from a slam-dunk. All of which makes the intemperate tone of his complaints all the more objectionable: The more dubious the legal case, the more circumspect should be its embrace by a political leader.
Worse still, of course (in the short term, at least), is the nature of Hastert's political blunder. In the face of a general public already fed up with congressional malfeasance and self-absorption, the very last thing the Speaker should do is to sound as if Congress is above the law.
Sen. John Warner was entirely right, in contradistinction to Hastert, when he said that "Congress should not set itself apart from citizens. We should be treated alike when it comes to criminal codes." That bit of wisdom should be familiar to Hastert and others who signed the Republican Contract with America in 1994: As has been widely noted, one of the most popular, applause-generating parts of the Contract was its pledge to, "FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress."
The inviolability of one's own office space against a duly and carefully executed search warrant is far from being a law generally applicable to the "rest of the country."
If Hastert's outburst against the Jefferson search were an isolated incident, a rare lapse in judgment, it certainly would be forgivable. Because, however, it is part of a consistent pattern of abuses of ethical norms or of simple fairness, and because Hastert's own compromised image is helping drag down his whole party's electoral prospects for November, this Speaker should silence himself politically.
As Republicans realized way back when they first took the majority in Congress, eight years is long enough for any Speaker to become the source of horrible static -- and to be replaced, forthwith.
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