He has been the Speaker of the House for more sessions of Congress than any previous Republican, but Rep. Dennis Hastert is far from a household name. One reason is that Rep. Tom DeLay called a lot of the shots. But another is that Hastert has been loath to cross swords with anyone — until now.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today marks a milestone for the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. As of today, Dennis Hastert has served longer than any Republican speaker in history. Still, many Americans aren't sure who he is. Hastert has long preferred to operate out of the public eye in Washington, leaving the headlines to others. But that may no longer be possible, given recent clashes with the White House, the coming departure of this longtime legislative partner, Tom DeLay, and a tough election coming in November.
NPR's David Greene reports.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
Few politicians are proud to be described as anonymous, but go to Denny Hastert's official website, at the top right corner, it says, who is the speaker. Then it displays this quote from the Washington Post's David Broder - "The most powerful Republican outside the White House is also the most anonymous. Few seem to notice the existence, let alone the large and growing influence of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert."
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The best words that I've recently heard were these, Denny Hastert is running for office again.
GREENE: That was President Bush on a visit to Hastert's Illinois district last year. Hastert had decided with some nudging from the White House to run for an 11th term. The president in his first term welcomed Hastert's service as a loyal caretaker of the administration's agenda.
Time and time again he carried water for the White House with no sign of an agenda of his own. In November, he took to the floor in a late night debate and defended cuts to Medicaid and other popular domestic programs in the face of Democratic taunts.
Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): We could leave our children with a deficit, leave our children with a deficit, and you're right, you are right. Stand up and clap, because we will leave our children, can I have some order -
GREENE: Hastert was a high school wrestling coach and at 64 he still looks like he'd be happier wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle. Dick Cheney once joked that when he gets together with Hastert, it's hard to contain all that charisma.
The speakership was the first job Hastert was elected to in the House leadership. He got it almost accidentally back in 1998, after the fall of the fiery Newt Gingrich.
Representative NEWT GINGRICH (Republican, Georgia): To the degree I was too brash, too self-confident, or too pushy, I apologize. To whatever degree in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize.
GREENE: With Gingrich gone, the leading Republican figure was Tom DeLay, the House Whip, also known for his hard charging ways. But DeLay stepped aside and promoted his deputy, Denny Hastert. The Republican Gingrich had been highly ambitious, challenging President Bill Clinton for preeminence in the Capitol.
Previous Democratic speakers, like Jim Wright and Tip O'Neill, also cast themselves as counterweights to the President. O'Neill became a kind of sparring partner for President Ronald Reagan and when O'Neill finally retired in 1986, he had this to say to Reagan on the phone -
Representative TIP O'NEILL (Democrat, Massachusetts): Mr. President, how are you? Well, I'll tell you, we drew down the curtain, I'm walking off the stage, and it's nice to go to the applause of some of your friends on both sides of the aisle and particularly I want to say thank you to you for helping making me a very important man in the eyes of the American people.
GREENE: Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institutio, said the most memorable speakers, like Democrat Sam Rayburn, the longest serving of all, have been champions for their branch of government.
Mr. THOMAS MANN (Brookings Institution): They asserted Congress's independence and they became somewhat larger than life. Hastert has - by assuming the role of President Bush's lieutenant - has abdicated that institutional position and as a consequence, I think the institution has been diminished and its leader has been diminished as well.
GREENE: Indeed, Hastert has mostly been a bystander as the Bush White House has stretched the power of the Executive Branch. That's why it took many by surprise last week when Hastert got furious over an FBI search of the office of a Democratic Congressman, William Jefferson. The speaker was even hotter after ABC News suggested he was himself under scrutiny. A suggestion he perceived as a warning shot from within the administration.
Representative HASTERT: You know, this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people and we're just not going to be intimidated.
GREENE: Hastert has also openly disagreed with the President on social security and immigration and criticized Mr. Bush's decision to replace CIA Director Porter Goss. But it took the FBI search and the rage of his rank and file over their prerogatives to push Hastert over the line and into a new visibility in national affairs, whether he likes it or not.
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This week, Dennis Hastert of Illinois becomes the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in U.S. history. He surpasses such legendary figures as Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine and Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, and previous record holder "Uncle Joe" Cannon, also of Illinois, who was speaker a century ago.
In an awkward coincidence, Hastert is claiming the longevity crown just as most Americans may be paying attention to him for the first time. Through most of his time as speaker, Hastert has held the top job but has not been the chamber's dominant personality. That distinction has belonged to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), who left his leadership post last fall and will resign his seat June 9 to go back home and fight charges that he violated campaign finance laws.
Now, Hastert is finally emerging as his own man and asserting the authority that goes with his office. But the attention he is getting is not entirely welcome.
Last week, the speaker popped up as the lead story on ABC News, which reported that he was "in the mix" of House members the Justice Department is looking at in its probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff (now awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges). The speaker immediately denied he was being investigated, and so did the Justice Department. But ABC stood by its story, making everyone wonder just what "in the mix" might mean.
The sudden national exposure could scarcely come at a worst time for Hastert, who had just been badgering President Bush in protest of a search the FBI conducted on a congressional office the previous weekend. The overnight FBI night raid, apparently unprecedented in 217 years of congressional history, had many House and Senate members howling. So as Speaker, Hastert had an institutional duty to take his separation-of-powers grievance straight to the Oval Office.
It now turns out that Hastert's pleas did not go unheard. Vice President Dick Cheney, usually a reliable vote for executive privilege and prerogative, objected to the way his old House colleagues were being dissed. The congressman whose office was raided, William Jefferson (D-LA), may well have been a wholly legitimate target. But did the FBI have to storm his office without so much as a heads-up to the Speaker? The Washington Post and the New York Times reported the president had heard the Hill complaints and begun leaning toward some sort of accommodation for the speaker and his wounded troops.
But when top Justice Department officials caught wind of the seized records being returned, they rebelled. The deputy attorney general in charge reportedly talked of resigning. He was reinforced by his boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, and by FBI Director Robert Mueller. Although none actually issued an ultimatum, they caused the prevailing winds at the White House to shift yet again.
The president ordered a 45-day cooling off period, with the seized materials sealed for the interim. That gives all a chance to step back from their lines in the sand. But a cooling-off does not settle what happens to the records themselves, and it does not address the larger issues at stake.
No one believes that Hastert weighed in on the Jefferson case out of concern for Jefferson. That much he has made clear. There is, rather, a principle involved, one rooted in the Constitution. Each branch enjoys a presumption of autonomy and shared power.
But beyond this principle lie other, equally urgent considerations. Hastert may be no more inclined to protect Jefferson than he was to defend former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA), who pleaded guilty earlier this year to accepting millions in bribes. But there are other investigations afoot that may worry Hastert because they concern a number of other senior Republicans.
For months there has been talk that the Justice Department task force that nailed Abramoff is casting a wide net in the direction of his former friends and associates — including major power figures in the Republican House.
The task force has focused on staff and lobbyists to date, but it is expected to pursue more indictments. Some on the Hill fear the task force is redefining criminal bribery, broadening it to include campaign contributions given without the sort of quid pro quo that would constitute obvious corruption. This might allow the net of suspicion to be cast quite widely indeed.
Hastert has been under extraordinary pressure from his rank and file, who are alarmed about the prospects of defeat in November's midterm elections. Hastert has ceased to be the pushover he often seemed during President Bush's first term. In the past year or so, he has been at odds with the White House over elements of the president's Social Security overhaul, over the guest worker and citizenship programs the president wants in the immigration bill and over levels of spending the president is willing to condone. Earlier this month, Hastert felt stung when his longtime friend Porter Goss was ousted as CIA director.
It was in this context that the speaker saw himself and Congress rudely challenged by the search of Jefferson's office in defiance of precedent and custom.
So there could be multiple reasons for Hastert, the affable former high school teacher and wrestling coach, to be alarmed at the proceedings at Justice. The sudden search of the Jefferson office is simply the latest incident to provoke the rumpled and unpretentious man whom colleagues still call "Coach."