Dennis Hastert, who left the speakership when Republicans lost the House in 2006, and resigned from Congress shortly thereafter, quickly faded into obscurity. Then, last Thursday, he skyrocketed to the top of the news. His indictment, and the reports of the shocking underlying sexual abuse allegations, have made him a household name, something he never experienced as speaker. And now reporters are catching up, letting readers, viewers, and listeners know something about the man best known as the accidental speaker. But many of those accounts elide the most important aspects of Hastert’s rein over the House of Representatives.
He Was Known as a Nice Guy
For those inside and out of Congress, it was hard to dislike Hastert. “Amiable” and “avuncular” were probably the labels most often applied to him. When I saw him at a book event after he retired, I went up and had a nice chat with him, despite the fact that I had often been one of his harshest critics. But there was an additional term used to describe him before he became speaker: loyal. The loyalty was to his mentor for whom he became a top lieutenant, Tom DeLay. Hastert helped DeLay ascend to a top leadership position in the Gingrich House, counting votes and twisting arms to elect him whip and helping him strong-arm Republicans as Chief Deputy Whip.
DeLay was already radioactive when the speakership became vacant after the dominoes of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston fell in 1999, but he quickly moved to install his deputy in the post. Republicans at that point were desperate—in the throes of impeaching Bill Clinton, they needed to get the spotlight off their own peccadilloes and hypocrisy. Hastert was immediately embraced by House Republicans, not because he was widely seen as a leader and speaker material, but in large part because he was seen as clean and inoffensive.
He Was Ethically Obtuse
Hastert’s tenure as speaker was marked by a series of scandals. But during a time when both parties were generally happy to avoid major showdowns, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct tended to work in a bipartisan way to downplay transgressions. When Hastert mentor DeLay ran into problems, Hastert tried to bottle them up; when they became so pronounced and repeated that they could not be swept away, the ethics committee set up a subcommittee and did its duty, recommending a series of reprimands for DeLay in 2004. Hastert’s response was to fire the committee chair, Republican conservative Joel Hefley of Colorado, along with two Republicans on the subcommittee, Kenny Hulshof of Missouri and Steve LaTourette of Ohio, replacing them with loyalists—and the next year seeking rules changes to make it harder to admonish his colleagues. Hastert also acted after three Texas associates of DeLay were indicted—by enacting a rule that would enable DeLay to stay as majority leader if he were indicted.
The DeLay scandals included a subsequent indictment that ultimately forced his resignation, and culminated with the indictments, in the Jack Abramoff scandal, of some of his closest longtime aides. This was followed by the case of Republican Representative Mark Foley of Florida, who had engaged in a series of inappropriate exchanges with young male pages in the House. Repeated warnings of inappropriate actions made to the speaker’s office were ignored or rebuffed until the scandal exploded into public view, a serious embarrassment for the House and the speaker.
Hastert Enriched Himself in Congress in Ethically Challenged Ways
The cases above involved other lawmakers. Recent news stories have suggested that Hastert’s own behavior in Congress was squeaky clean. Former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who was one of the savviest and most constructive lawmakers during his dozen years in the House and was an ally of Hastert, described him to The Washington Post as a “pillar of integrity,” and added, "From everything I can tell, that's the way he conducted himself in office.” Davis told Politico that Hastert’s reputation as speaker was “beyond reproach.”
Not so. As the Sunlight Foundation uncovered in 2006, and as longtime House staffer Scott Lilly and I wrote in detail, Hastert manipulated a series of complex land transactions in his home state of Illinois, in concert with wealthy patrons, to take his net worth from a negligible amount to many millions of dollars while he was serving as Speaker of the House—buying land at a low price while his associates purchased adjacent land at a much higher price, then merging the parcels and creating a trust that gave Hastert an inflated share. Hastert then used his clout as speaker to jam through a stalled transportation bill to which he attached an earmark to fund a highway interchange unwanted by the Illinois Department of Transportation and local residents that was a mile from his land. The earmark caused the land to skyrocket in value, and a portion was sold to a developer that resulted in a $3 million-plus payoff to the newly rich Speaker of the House, a 500 percent profit. Hastert retained his share in the remainder of the land—his net worth when he left office was estimated at between $4 and $17 million. While much of the value was in land, he had also netted a huge pile of cash. No ethics actions were taken against Hastert—which says more about the ethics process than it does about the individual—but by any reasonable standard this was dodgy behavior.
Hastert Blew Up the “Regular Order” in the House.
The regular order—a mix of rules and norms that allows debate, deliberation, and amendments in committees and on the House floor, that incorporates and does not shut out the minority (even if it still loses most of the time), that takes bills that pass both houses to a conference committee to reconcile differences, that allows time for members and staff to read, digest, and analyze bills—is a mainstay of a functional legislative process. To be sure, it is frequently subordinated to larger political exigencies, under the majorities of both political parties, especially in recent decades. No speaker has entirely clean hands.
But no speaker did more to relegate the regular order to the sidelines than Hastert. As Tom Mann and I describe in detail in our 2006 book “The Broken Branch,” Hastert presided over one of the worst moments for a deliberative body in modern times, the nearly three-hour vote in the dead of night to pass the Medicare prescription-drug bill—a vote that under the rules was supposed to last 15 minutes. The arm-twisting on the floor turned to something close to outright extortion, resulting in yet more admonitions for Tom DeLay. Under Hastert, amendments from Democrats and Republicans alike were squelched by a strikingly pliant Rules Committee; conferences were rarely held, and if they were, it was late at night and they were closed to input from all except loyal lieutenants; and provisions were sometimes added to conference reports that had never been in either House or Senate bills without notice to other lawmakers, among other indignities. And, of course, Hastert presided over the informal “Hastert rule,” doing whatever he could to avoid input from Democrats, trying to pass bills with Republicans alone. The House is a very partisan institution, with rules structured to give even tiny majorities enormous leverage. But Hastert took those realities to a new and more tribalized, partisan plane.
For all of that, Hastert was not despised by his colleagues or much noticed by the press. He did not seek any limelight and did not revel in his position. He did not purchase expensive suits or demand superstar level perks. He did not become a regular on Sunday talk shows or anything close to a household word or figure. He did not openly exhibit the kind of snarling or mean partisan demeanor that made Tom DeLay such a mark of hatred for Democrats. He was … affable. And rumpled. And those qualities meant that his transgressions were largely ignored by reporters who rarely do much to cover the ins and outs of Congress. He left the House with few except some insiders recognizing what he did to the House and in the House as speaker. And left virtually everybody stunned with the recent revelations.