Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Partisanship and collegiality in the Foley affair

This WaPo article, mostly about House Speaker Denny Hastert’s travails, contains this nugget from Thomas Mann, one of the deans of Congressional studies:

"I think what has been revealed about the way in which the Republican leadership, and Hastert in particular, has handled this matter is fully consistent with his prior behavior as speaker," said Thomas E. Mann, a scholar on Congress at the Brookings Institution and author of a critical new book on the decline of Congress’s role in governance." This is a man who has never taken seriously his institutional roll [sic] as a constitutional officer of the United States and the head of the whole House, not just the head of the Republican Party."

I agree that Hastert needs to take his institutional role seriously. Whether he and his subordinates were as aggressive in this investigation as they should have been is question
reasonably raised by Majority Whip Roy Blunt, who thinks that his experience as a university president is apposite here. (I’ve been thinking about the higher ed parallels all along! We professors are almost as drunk, if not more so, on the elixir of power than are those guys on Capitol Hill, though we’re much cheaper drunks. O.K., I speak loosely and humorously, but it’s not as if colleges and universities don’t have their share of, shall we say, indiscreet faculty.)

But back to my main topic: in addition to a leader who takes his institutional responsibility seriously--who is, for example, concerned about the integrity of the whole House, not just about the reputation of his party--we need a membership that takes these responsibilities seriously as well. Foley clearly didn’t or, perhaps more charitably, was unable to. But there are others who were culpable as well. If you’re serious about holding Hastert accountable for the integrity of the House (and you should be), then you should offer him the support he needs to be its chief steward. What that means in this case is taking the egregious IMs to Hastert, not to the press. Once he knew about them, he acted quite decisively and rightly.

So yes, Hastert and his staffers can perhaps be faulted for their lack of vigor in looking for the fire where there was allegedly some smoke. But those who sat on the incendiary evidence for Lord knows how long are even more culpable: they had clear evidence of moral wrongdoing--the legal issues, as Steve Hayward notes, aren’t clear-cut--and simply exploited them for partisan advantage. If it was Hastert’s duty to investigate allegations aggressively, he needs the evidence on which to act. Withholding this evidence prevents him from doing his (non-partisan) job.

Heads should indeed roll. Some already have on the Republican side of the aisle. When will the Democrats demonstrate that they take institutional integrity seriously as something other than a campaign talking point?

Update: An apparent attempt by some of Hastert’s aides to deflect some blame has produced some blowback, which, if corroborated, is quite serious. And, in general, passing the buck here does not serve the interests either of institutional integrity or the GOP’s November fortunes.

In addition, if former Foley aide Kirk Fordham is telling the truth, then his subsequent silence is problematical. Why did he seem to let this very serious matter drop after people in Hastert’s office, as he said, wouldn’t intervene at his request? As Byron York notes, Fordham needs to get his story straight.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Joseph:

It’s a Republican scandal, I’m afraid. (See the Hill, via Josh Marshall, here.) I think I can see your point, but the function of the argument is primarily to deflect blame from Republicans, and I’m having a hard time brushing aside the suspicion that you’re just dressing up the Rush Limbaugh / GOP talking points in fancier garb. And historically, I’ll bet you’re on shaky ground. Do you have a particular Congress in mind as a model?

Do you have an institutional suggestion for trying to make the House more collegial? Or do you think it’s just a matter of moral will? And if it’s the latter, who, in your opinion, has shown such will as a member of the House?

Brett,

The Republican scandal, such as it is, has to do with the apparently less-than-zealous pursuit of the Foley story. I think I understand why it happened, but that doesn’t make it right.

Foley’s scandal is personal, not Republican or Democratic.

But I don’t think there’s a moral high ground here. Any Democrat who knew about the most damning evidence should have brought it forward through the "proper channels." Had that been the case, and had the allegations and evidence been blown off or swept under a rug, then the Democrats would be justified in what now appears to be mere posturing and preening.

But I do take seriously the collective responsibility for institutional integrity, which is of course all too often honored in the breach.

There’s no evidence that Democrats had any additional evidence; the news media seems to have been tipped off by a Republican. And you’re probably understating the role of Reynolds in encouraging Foley to run even though there were stories about his bad habits.

But still: do you have examples of House members who have followed the ethic that you’re advancing here? If so, I’d like to know more about them.

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