- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

J. Dennis Hastert passes a milestone today, becoming the longest serving Republican speaker of the House in the history of Congress. Despite its importance, many facets of this highest-ranking congressional leadership post are not well understood. All speakers balance at least two often conflicting roles — serving as their party’s top legislative leader, and also representing the whole House, Republicans and Democrats, as a parliamentary body.

But political providence bestows a third challenge on some speakers — leading the House when their party also controls the presidency. For all of George W. Bush’s tenure, “the Coach,” as some affectionately call Mr. Hastert, has piloted the White House agenda through Congress with a mix of old-school loyalty, sincere listening and deft legislative maneuvering. President Bush owes his congressional consigliore a debt of gratitude, while the speaker deserves credit for coaching Republicans through these unique times without much of a historical playbook.

Serving as speaker with a president of the same party is now a historical anomaly. As American University political scientist James Thurber points out, “Opposing parties have controlled the presidency and one or both houses of Congress in twenty-six of the thirty-two years from 1969 through 2001 (81 percent of the time).” Joseph Martin of Massachusetts in 1953 was the last Republican speaker to serve with a Republican president, but he only lasted one term. Democrats took back the House in 1954 and held it for 40 years.

Interestingly, prior to Mr. Hastert, the longest serving Republican speaker was also an Illinois congressman — Joseph Cannon, whose tenure was 1903 to 1910. “Uncle Joe,” however, ruled the House with an iron fist and an autocratic style.

While Cannon’s and Mr. Hastert’s temperament differ dramatically, they share at least one major historical parallel. Both served as speaker with a two-term president of their own party. Cannon’s tenure as speaker overlapped with Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), while Mr. Hastert has led the House for both of President Bush’s terms. (Mr. Hastert did serve his first two years as speaker with Democratic President Bill Clinton 1999-2000). Yet Cannon often clashed with Roosevelt publicly and clearly viewed his role as something other than navigating the White House’s agenda through turbulent congressional weather.

When different parties control the House and the presidency, speakers play a prominent role more as opposition leaders — see Newt Gingrich with Bill Clinton, Tom Foley with George H.W. Bush and Tip O’Neill with Ronald Reagan. But President Bush and Speaker Hastert form a strong “yin and yang” in the lawmaking process. Mr. Bush is clearly the national party leader, while the speaker focuses on party building and passing legislation in the House.

Presidential scholars Jon Bon and Richard Fleisher, in their book, “The President in the Legislative Arena,” argue that cooperative and strong legislative leaders play a key role in White House progress in lawmaking. And Mr. Hastert has been like a dose of steroids for Mr. Bush’s agenda.

For the past six years, without much fanfare, Mr. Hastert has been the “closer” — the person who secures the final stubborn holdout votes, guaranteeing Mr. Bush’s victories on a host of tax, trade, legal-reform and health-care issues. And while many focus on Mr. Bush’s decisions when it comes to the White House not vetoing any bills to date, one of the reasons is Denny Hastert. He routinely reminds his Republican colleagues — and the executive branch — that they have an obligation to try to avoid intra-party showdowns. And as a lobbyist who knows him reminded me, he speaks credibly to the White House and lawmakers because he listens so well to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Serving as an architect of the president’s legislative agenda was neither guaranteed nor well rehearsed for Mr. Hastert. While he’s far from being a yes-man for the White House (as the current flap over the raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s office by the Justice Department indicates), he knows when to cool a conflict and that a speaker’s public posture can make or break a presidency — Tip O’Neill’s timid support at key moments for Jimmy Carter is a good example. Due to his background, instincts and temperament, Mr. Hastert decided that supporting the president was usually the best course of action for his party. He deserves the thanks and admiration of the White House and his colleagues for guiding his team to legislative victories with a limited playbook of recent historical precedents.


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