July 16, 2003


If and when Nancy Pelosi, the liberal San Francisco Democrat who is the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, becomes speaker, she will be lionized in the news media as the most powerful woman in the federal government and as the breaker of the proverbial glass ceiling which supposedly precludes women from power.

But until that occurs, which will not be until 2006 or later, the most powerful Illinoisan in Washington, D.C., and the most astute politician in the U.S. House will continue to be Speaker Denny Hastert, the largely obscure congressman from far south suburban Yorkville. Taking over as speaker from Newt Gingrich, Hastert has remade the Republicans into the party of governance, not the party of protest -- or, as Gingrich sought, the party of "revolution."

Inasmuch as the Republicans have controlled the U.S. House for only 38 of the past 104 years, and for only 10 of the 50 years from 1955 to 2004, Hastert's continued occupancy of the speakership, which he has held since January 1999, is especially noteworthy. Unlike Gingrich, Hastert understands that his job is to manage and maintain a Republican House majority, not, as Gingrich sought, to "revolutionize" the federal government.

Hastert, a 61-year-old former high school wrestling coach, was first elected to Congress in 1986 from the 14th District, which now encompasses all of Kane, Kendall, DeKalb and Lee counties and parts of DuPage and LaSalle counties. Unlike the inflammatory Gingrich, Hastert possesses three key attributes which benefit both him and his party:

First, he is bland and uncontroversial. He cannot be demonized by the liberals and Democrats, as Gingrich was.

Second, he is focused on managing and maintaining the Republicans' majority by passing bills which redound to the benefit of Republican incumbents. In other words, his job is to ensure that plenty of "pork" flows into the districts of Republican congressmen and that the Republican majority does not go on record as opposing any popular measures.

And third, he understands that the Republicans, to keep their majority, must act like the governing party and must pass the necessary appropriations to keep the federal government operational. They cannot, like Gingrich did, fail to pass necessary funding bills and allow the federal bureaucracy to be shut down. The Republicans' 1995 refusal to appropriate funds to maintain the government's operation, and the resultant government shutdown, allowed President Bill Clinton to go into an attack mode, to isolate the Republicans as "extreme," and to win an easy re-election in 1996. It also effectively ended Gingrich's presidential ambitions.

The Republicans' 230-205 majority in the 104th Congress (1995-96) diminished accordingly: Democrats gained four House seats in 1996 (which occurred despite five southern Democratic House members switching to the Republicans in 1995) and another three in 1998, which left them with a 223-212 minority.

However, since 1998 the Republicans under Hastert's leadership have rebounded smartly: They are back to a 229-206 majority, having lost two seats in 2000 but having gained eight in 2002.

The Republican philosophy has historically been that of less government, and the Democratic philosophy the opposite. But, beginning in the 1990s and especially now with the war on terrorism, a sizable number of Americans perceive that there is a critical role for government, both federal and local, in their lives -- in education, law enforcement, public works and national defense. An anti-government party, which was the Republicans' self-anointed role for decades, would be unpopular and irrelevant.

Hastert, unlike Gingrich, understands that evolutionary fact. A majority party must govern, not criticize or revolutionize. As speaker, Hastert ensures that there's plenty of money appropriated for the local capital improvement projects -- known as "pork" -- for road and facility construction and for research that are critical to an incumbent's re-election. For example, the federal government spent $1.001 trillion in 1987, under President Ronald Reagan, while in 2003, under Republican George Bush, federal spending was $2.024 trillion -- a doubling in 16 years. Clinton, a Democrat, boosted spending by "just" $200 billion in his 8 years, so of that period's $1 trillion in spending increases (which will grow even higher in 2004 and 2005), more than 80 percent came under Republican presidents.

Yet, quite predictably, there has been no inversion of political ideology: Democrats in Congress are not calling for spending reductions, but for spending increases, and Republicans advocate spending hikes, but in amounts less than that proposed by the Democrats.

An example of Hastert's political acuity is the matter of prescription drug benefits for seniors and Medicare recipients. The Democrats advocated that all drug charges be reimbursed through Medicare, an enormous spike -- estimated to be about $400 billion in federal expenditures. The Republican position was that private insurers should foot the bill, after a co-payment. Democrats began attacking the Republicans as insensitive to seniors. Hastert's response: The House passed a bill which mandates that America's 40 million seniors or disabled pay a $35-per-month private insurance premium, with a $250 annual deductible and 80 percent coverage of prescriptions costs from $276 to $4,500, and with the patient paying all other costs between $2,000 and $5,100 but Medicare paying 100 percent of annual prescriptions above $5,100.

Hastert also dictated Republican approval of a $1,000-per-child tax credit for low-income and married couples. That measure passed 224-201, with Democrats in opposition because they sought a higher tax credit.

So the bottom line is this: Hastert has put the Republicans on record as favoring both a prescription drug credit and a child tax credit. Democrats can argue that the Republicans didn't back a bigger increase in each, but they cannot claim that the Republicans opposed each. Thus, there is no current opportunity to demonize Hastert and the Republicans as Clinton and the Democrats demonized Gingrich and the Republicans in 1995-96.

Under Gingrich, the Republicans imposed an 8-year limitation on service in the leadership. That would have meant that Hastert, speaker since 1999, would have been "termed out" in 2006, but that rule was rescinded by the House Republicans in 2003, so Hastert can serve as speaker for as long as the Republicans are in the House majority.

If the Republicans maintain their majority in 2004, enabling Hastert to serve through 2006, he would tie the record of Illinois' legendary Joe "Boss" Cannon, who served as speaker for 8 years (1903-11), and he would exceed the tenures of Republican speakers Gingrich of Georgia (1995-98), Joe Martin of Massachusetts (1947-48 and 1953-54), Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts (1919-25), Nicholas Longworth of Ohio (1925-31) and David Henderson of Iowa (1899-1903).

The Democrats' House minority leader from 1995 to 2002 was Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who is running for president; Pelosi took over in January 2003. To have been in the minority, to have raised tens of millions of dollars, and to have gained but a net of one seat in 10 years is a testament to Gephardt's pathetic skills. Pelosi's goal is to define some Democratic goal and to prompt voters to vote for Democratic congressional candidates -- a task which Gephardt failed to achieve.

Very few of the House's 435 seats are competitive -- fewer than two dozen in 2004. As of this date, however, few Republican incumbents are vulnerable, and few Democratic or Republican incumbents are retiring or running for higher office.

Republicans could pick up Democratic seats in Florida, Georgia, Utah, Texas, Oregon, Kentucky and Kansas. Democrats could pick up Republican seats in Kentucky, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. The outlook: A Republican pick-up of two or three seats.

  Given the narrow partisan and demographic splits in the country, neither party has a solid majority. The individual states' 2001 remaps following the 2000 census favored the Republicans, as those states who gained House seats were largely controlled by the Republicans.

Hastert, as speaker, has deftly given voters no reason to vote against his Republican majority while having given them a tangible reason to vote for congressional Republicans. That takes great skill.

Ten of Illinois' 19-member congressional delegation are Republicans. That won't change. Likewise, most other state's congressional seats have been drawn to favor a certain party, with the Republicans the primary beneficiary and holding a majority of seats. Their majority is solid.

The bottom line: Unless there's a major recession, with President Bush repudiated by a record margin, the Republicans' control of the U.S. House and Senate won't be ended. That's good news for Illinois, as Hastert will continue to bless the state with loads of "pork."