Quin Hillyar has an excellent piece in The American Spectator calling on Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to step aside as a candidate for Speaker of the House when the new Congress convenes next January. After his recent behavior in the wake of the FBI raid on Congressman William Jefferson’s offices, this is, I think long overdue and, as usual, there are a number of reasons:
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.
This is, I think, unlikely to happen. Once Republicans acheived power in the 1994 elections, they were pretty quick to jump off the term limits bandwagon that had been a part of their electoral success. With a few notable exceptions, many of the members of the Class of `94 who had campaigned on the promise that they would only serve for a set number of terms suddenly found several convenient reasons why it was a good idea to break a promise to the voters. The real reason, of course, was that, once they had it, many Republicans found that they liked power and they liked being powerful. Why give it up voluntarily ?
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.
In other words, Republicans in power began behaving just like the Democrats they had complained about during their 40 years in the wilderness of a seemingly permanent minority.
And, Hillyar notes, with Hastert at the head of the pack, the House GOP began displaying what can only be called the arrogance of power:
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.
As the Ancient Greeks said, a fish stinks from the head down, and everything that there is to dislike about Congress in general and the House GOP in particular can be attributed to the actions of Hastert and those under him. Chad Dotson at Commonwealth Conservative says it well:
Hastert has presided over a House GOP that has become a national embarrassment. It?s time for new leadership.
It is, quite frankly, time for him to go. In all likelihood, though, he won’t and he’s likely to take the GOP down with him.