Dennis Hastert, who served eight years as the most lamentable Speaker of the House in the chamber’s history, began a slow exit from the Congress Friday. It was on that day that the former wrestling coach, who attained the speakership not on the basis of any political skills or policy expertise but because he was willing to front for the unpalatable Tom DeLay, announced his decision not to seek reelection from the Illinois district that has elected him since 1986.
Among the fifty men and one woman who have held the speakership since a German-born pastor named Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg filled the position for the First Congress, there have been more than a few disappointments. Aside from the indicted, the disgraced and the disreputable, there have been the indefensible — like Howell Cobb, who used his pre-Civil War speakership to promote the extension of slavery. Cobb would eventually find his true calling as the speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress and the acting president of the southern states that seceded from the U.S. in treasonous defense of human bondage.
Could the shambling, ineffectual and frequently inarticulate Hastert really have been a worse Speaker of the House than a crude proponent of slavery, or a crook like Jim Wright or a conniving partisan like Newt Gingrich? Absolutely.
Even the worst of his predecessors had respect for the House as a institution of Congress, the separate but equal legislative branch of the federal government. Hastert displayed no such understanding or commitment. He made the House during the three congresses in which his speakership coincided with the administration of George Bush and Dick Cheney — ironically, a man as a House member in the Reagan era coveted the post of Speaker and co-authored a history of the position — something less than it was ever meant to be.
The House that Hastert built was neither a check nor a balance on the excesses of the Bush presidency. Hastert’s House allowed the president to go to war and then initiate the long-term occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan without declarations, it rubber-stamped the administration’s anti-Constitutional assaults on civil liberties, it made no complaint when the president attached signing statements that effectively exempted him from hundreds of laws that had been passed by the chamber.
Hastert’s House was a crude and unworkable place, where members who sought to uphold their oaths to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic” were held up to ridicule and forced to hold hearings on issues involving the most extreme abuses of presidential authority — lying to the Congress and the American people about matters of war and peace — in basement rooms.
As a man, Hastert was as cruel and uncaring about the fate of the American people he was uniquely empowered to serve as he was about the interns dispatched to the office of Florida Congressman Mark Foley. Hastert’s objection to the use of federal funds to rebuild predominantly African-American sections of New Orleans where thousands of homes and lives had been wrecked by Hurricane Katrina — “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed” — was so brutal that he was forced to publicly amend his comments with a claim that “I’m not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated.” But the lack of an adequate response to the needs of New Orleans by Hastert and his colleagues would confirm that the Speaker’s initial reaction was a truer expression of his sentiments than the apologia.
Ultimately, however, the greatest horror of Hastert’s House was not confirmed by its specific failures to serve the American people who most needed a Congress to counter the malignant neglect of the Bush-Cheney administration. Rather, it was defined by the remaking of an essential legislative chamber as nothing more than an extension of the executive branch of the government. The damage to the Congress has been severe, as has been the damage to the Republic.
Since the opposition Democrats were handed control of both the House and Senate in the realigning election of 2006, some steps have been taken to restore a proper balance. There have been more debates. A few committees have begun to investigate the lawlessness of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other members of the administration. There is even talk, among the more principled members of the chamber, of censuring or impeaching the president or vice president. But the work is far from done. The House of current Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains too careful, too deferent and too dysfunctional in its dealings with a unitary executive branch. On most matters, President Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to get their way without much of a fight — witness the decision of the Congress to allocate more money for the continuation of the Iraq occupation than the White House had requested. And the administration continues to treat the House and Senate with a disdain that is writ large across radical demands of executive privilege.
Even as Hastert prepares to exit Congress, the threat posed by his approach to the speakership continues. That threat is rooted in the prospect that he has created a model for House leadership — or the lack thereof — that will be reasserted at future moments when the legislative and executive branches are under the common control of a single party. Indeed, if a House led by Pelosi were to be as subservient to a White House occupied by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as was the House of Hastert to the administration of Bush and Cheney, the illusionary “leader” from Illinois will continue to define how the separation of powers operates long after he exits the Capitol.
There is a cautionary tale here for Pelosi. She should not let this remain the era of the weak Congress that it was under the fundamentally flawed leadership of Dennis Hastert. She should make it clear, to Bush an to his successor, that with Hastert gone, the speakership and the House will be restored to its proper place in the federal hierarchy.
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