10/05/2006 01:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Sexual Predator and the Sock Puppet: Why Hastert Did Nothing

Why shouldn't the cover-up of a sexual predator roaming among the congressional pages have worked? For Dennis Hastert, Mark Foley's cruising was a trivial, forgettable non-issue to be assigned to a non-member, the Clerk of the House, Jeff Trandahl, to insure that the Speaker would never hear of such a matter again. Trandahl, since last September appointed executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a sinecure at an organization established and controlled by the Congress, has himself virtually disappeared, refusing all comment.

As I explain in "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime," the political style of the House Republican leaders disdains accountability and ingrains impunity: "Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, [Majority Leader Tom] DeLay's sock puppet, opened the 109th Congress by declaring that legislation had to meet the approval of 'the majority of the majority' -- DeLay's rule for right-wing control. On about 80 percent of the bills before the House, amendments are prohibited as a result of what are called 'closed rules.' By manipulation of so-called suspension bills -- for example, those that name federal buildings and praise civic groups -- the business of the House has become a playpen of trivialities. Instead of substantive debate, two-thirds of all the time on the House floor is devoted to these meaningless measures. By this means, the leadership concentrates power and frustrates the House from acting as deliberative body. The schedule of the House has been reduced to something like that of a small state legislature of the 19th century, with many of its lollygagging members turning up for work on Tuesday and leaving on Thursday."

After the Foley scandal broke, Hastert said he hardly knew him, though he recalled he might have perhaps spoken with him once. Hastert's lack of familiarity with Foley was reminiscent of his declaration that hardly anyone on Capitol had ever heard of Jack Abramoff. "Well, you know," said Hastert, "a year ago most people around Congress couldn't tell you who Jack Abramoff was and didn't know who his associates were or what connections there are."

In fact, Foley had been hand picked as one of DeLay's deputy whips, just as Hastert was selected to be Speaker. Hastert's "leadership" as DeLay's front man was typified during the struggle over a Medicare bill that would prohibit the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices for seniors from the pharmaceutical companies. When it seemed that the bill would be narrowly defeated, DeLay ordered Hastert to keep debate open three hours past the limit while DeLay twisted arms and promised campaign contributions to pry the measure through.

Hastert also tried his best to suppress any oversight of corruption in the House. When DeLay's corrupt campaign practices were exposed, Hastert repeatedly attempted to frustrate referrals to the Ethics Committee, which eventually issued three rebukes to DeLay. In response, Hastert removed the committee chairman and replaced him with a rubberstamp. Hastert's defense of DeLay, however, did not prevent his indictment in Texas.

DeLay departed around the time that Foley's emails to a page were drawn to Hastert's attention. The Speaker was more upset by DeLay's leaving than Foley's lurking.

Hastert had assimilated a smug arrogance that he displayed when asked about rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. As I report in "How Bush Rules," Hastert remarked: 'It doesn't make sense to me.' He elaborated: 'I think federal insurance and everything that goes along with it ... we ought to take a second look at that.' Thus Hastert upheld rugged individualism over a modern federal union. Just a month earlier, as it happened, Hastert had put out a press release crowing about his ability to win federal disaster relief for drought-stricken farmers in his Illinois district. While he was too preoccupied attending a campaign fundraiser for a Republican colleague to travel to Washington to vote for the $10.5 billion emergency appropriation to deal with Katrina's aftereffects, he did finally return to the capital to push for even more drought aid from the Department of Agriculture. Hastert's philosophy is not undermined by his stupendous hypocrisy, for hypocrisy is at the center of the Republican idea. Hastert simply has the shamelessness of his convictions."

When news of Foley's predatory behavior became public at last, Hastert at first said he learned about it only a week earlier, but then confessed that he had known for a year. He acted as though it didn't really matter what he said. Nothing would damage him or his party; life would go on; Republicans would rule. But soon he was caught up in a frenzy of finger pointing. As I write in my column for The Guardian and Salon: "Now, the Republican leaders' blame casting resembles the last scene of 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,' in which the varmints battle each other as their gold dust blows away."