A few weeks ago I wrote a column comparing the 1994 election for the U.S. House of Representatives with this year’s election. I concluded the column by pointing out that history rarely repeats itself exactly. How wrong I was.
The current page scandal is an exact re-run of the scandal House Democrats faced in 1994 over the House Bank and the House postal system, except that the parties are reversed. This year it’s the Republicans who are on the ropes and the outcome should be the same…devastating results for the party in power.
Let’s review the bidding.
In 1994, then Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., was slow to react to growing scandals surrounding the operations of the House Bank and the House postal system. There were early warnings that things were amiss but it took Foley and the rest of the Democratic Leadership months to respond and by then the entire matter had spun out of control.
There is a common thread running though the 1994 scandal and today’s scandal: both involved matters that were easily understood by the public and both involved negligent behavior by the people in charge.
The House Banking scandal was pretty simple. Members of Congress were permitted to open bank accounts with a special bank operated by the Sergeant at Arms. There were no service charges and, more significantly, members of Congress had unlimited overdraft protection. In other words, they could write any number of hot checks (checks that exceeded the amount on deposit) and they were given a significant amount of time to deposit funds in their account to make these checks goods.
The members were not charged any penalties for writing these overdrafts and the checks were honored by the bank when presented without question. In other words, the House of Representatives was giving members interest free loans, sometimes totaling thousands of dollars. Some members had written more than 100 such hot checks.
I didn’t use the House Bank for my personal banking and so I was not caught up in this scandal. Also, my late father, who was an engineer and personally very conservative, had drummed into my head at an early age that I should never bounce a check. And, I never have.
The House post office scandal was particularly serious because it involved criminal conduct. For years, members had been given an annual stamp allowance (for matters that could not be sent out under the “frank”—a member’s signature that appears on official envelopes where a stamp normally would be placed). A few members had their staffs take large quantifies of stamps and turn them into the post office in exchange for cash. The members then kept the cash refunds and used the money for personal expenses. This clearly was illegal and one prominent Congressmen actually went to jail for doing this. Congress has long since eliminated the stamp allowance.
It can be argued that neither of these matters rose to the level of the page scandal because they did not involve potential predatory sexual abuse of minors sent to Washington by trusting parents to work in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, the House Bank scandal and the House post office scandal became big issues in the 1994 elections and were a major contributing factor to the Republican victory that year.
The Republicans in 1994 raised these scandals as proof that the Democratic leadership had lost its way and could not be trusted to run the House in the proper manner.
And now history is repeating itself.
It is clear that Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., all knew months ago (and perhaps two years ago) that former Congressman Mark Foley, R-Fla., was sending overly friendly emails to pages. They may have not known about the sexually explicit content of the emails until just recently; however, they knew something was wrong.
People who follow these matters closely insist the request by a 52 year-old man to a 16-year-old boy for a photo was a classic sign of predatory behavior. Apparently, they all knew about this and similar emails months ago.
And yet, the collective Republican leadership took no decisive action to remedy the problem nor did they inform the Democratic member of the board overseeing the page program that there was a potential problem. The Democratic Leadership, working with Republican Leadership, had taken decisive action in a previous page scandal in the 1980’s involving one Democratic Congressman and one Republican Congressman.
Just as in 1994, an internal House scandal looks like it will prove to be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. In 1994, Democrats were already in trouble over tax increases, their inability to solve the health care crisis and an unpopular crime bill. The House Bank and post office scandals shoved the party right over the edge.
And now in 2006, with the Republicans already in trouble over the mess in Iraq, the slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina and ever-increasing budge deficits, the House page scandal likewise will be the final straw.
The lesson to be learned from all this is simple. When you are in a position of leadership in the House, surround yourself with strong staff who will make sure you face up to serious challenges early, particularly when these challenges go to the integrity of the House as an institution. Don’t think you can sweep matters like this under the rug and don’t let your desire to protect each and every seat your party holds in the House get in the way of exercising sound judgment.
I am a bridge player. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a trick in order to win a hand. Dennis Hastert and the rest of the Republican leadership should have sacrificed Mark Foley months ago to protect the integrity of the House. Now, they face losing the game, the rubber and the match. Sometimes history really does repeat itself.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.