Outlasting all GOP speakers, Hastert shows bold side
WASHINGTON — "Uncle" Joe Cannon of Illinois, the longest-serving GOP House speaker in history, until Wednesday, was also the most powerful speaker ever. He relished bashing presidents of his own party with the club of congressional power. Colleagues dubbed him "the czar."
Another Illinoisan, Dennis Hastert, who surpasses Cannon's record in office on June 1, is the un-Cannon. For more than five years, Mr. Hastert has backed President Bush's assertion of presidential authority on issues ranging from war powers to domestic surveillance. Colleagues dub him "the coach."
But last week, the coach turned tough. Angered by the FBI's unannounced raid of the Capitol Hill office of a Democratic colleague, Hastert forced a showdown with the Justice Department over the seized documents, and accused the FBI of trying to "intimidate" him by spreading rumors that he was part of a corruption probe.
It was a rare moment of public assertiveness for a speaker who has preferred to operate behind the scenes. And for the moment, it worked.
The Justice Department, in a rare denial, said that the speaker was not under investigation. And the president, in sealing the documents taken from the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William Jefferson (D) of Louisiana , bought 45 days to try to work out how the documents can be used.
The controversy may be just the beginning of Hastert's assertiveness as key House players depart the scene. For most of his 10 terms in the House, Hastert has worked in the shadow of outsized personalities, such as former majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, who will step down from the House to cope with legal battles on June 9.
"It's remarkable that this 'accidental speaker' is about to become the longest-serving [Republican] speaker of the House, especially when you think of all the forceful, powerful speakers we have had in American history," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "His role may be changing with the demise of DeLay," he adds, commenting on last week's events.
It was Mr. DeLay who proposed Hastert as speaker, when Newt Gingrich stepped down after GOP losses in 1998. Hastert's bolder tone has been building for some time. Long viewed as President Bush's strongest supporter in Congress, Hastert threw his weight behind the Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and a controversial expansion of the Medicare entitlement to include prescription drugs. With Bush's encouragement, he postponed retirement.
But more recently, he has publicly taken issue with the White House over the ouster of CIA director Porter Goss, a former House colleague, as well as the Dubai ports deal, which damaged Republicans with the public on what had been a GOP campaign talking point: national security.
"But these are small issues," explains Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. "The speaker has carried the president's water time and time again, because it reflects what House Republicans want to see as policy."
In what may become his signature interpretation of the role of speaker, Hastert makes the case that no issue should come to the floor without a "majority of the majority." It's a hurdle that could scuttle prospects for any bipartisan compromise on immigration reform that emerges in this session of Congress. A difficult negotiation between House and Senate conferees over this bill is expected to begin next week.
The speaker feels that the immigration bill "should reflect the views of the majority who brought him to power," says Mr. Bonjean.
Democrats say it's a distortion of democratic principles to not allow a bipartisan compromise to come to a floor vote, simply because enough Republicans did not support it. The immigration bill that passed the Senate last week had the support of a minority of Senate Republicans.
"Suppose a fairly strong majority of Republicans and Democrats come together on immigration. The House ought to be able to vote on a compromise. Otherwise, it's acting like a czar ... just like Joe Cannon," says former House historian Raymond Smock, now of the Robert C. Byrd Legislative Research Center at Shepherd University in West Virginia. [Editor's note: The original version gave an incomplete attribution for Raymond Smock.]
But it's Hastert's stance on the FBI search that has many of his GOP colleagues on edge back in their districts this week. They worry that Hastert's opposition to the search of Representative Jefferson's office will be misunderstood as a move to shield members from corruption investigations.
"Constitutionally, he's probably right, but perception is everything, and I worry that it gives the appearance that we think we're above the law," says Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R) of Virginia. Some of Hastert's former colleagues, now in the US Senate, say the speaker's position is indefensible.
"The speaker appears to be saying that a congressional office is a safe haven, and that you can't go in there under any circumstances to conduct a lawful search," says Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana. "That view would increase dramatically the public's loss of confidence, already at a low, with the Congress. It's not in the Constitution, and it's nowhere else," he adds.
But Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan says the speaker's reaction was predictable, especially after the search proceeded without consulting him in advance. "Denny very much works toward consensus. As a deputy whip for Tom DeLay, Denny was the one who brought people to agreement," he says.
"But you don't deal with Denny behind his back. He has no patience when he has been treated unfairly. It's just common Midwestern values," he adds.
In a typical election cycle, Hastert travels to more than 200 House districts to help maintain a GOP majority. Yet, he retains the respect of many Democrats.
"He has had a very difficult path to navigate. He is surviving with his decency intact, which is a big compliment in this toxic place," says Rep. Jane Harman (D) of California.