I’m guessing most of America had forgotten about Dennis Hastert, the U.S. House speaker-turned-lobbyist who was indicted last week in an alleged $3.5 million cover-up, reportedly involving long-ago sexual abuse.
Not New Orleans.
Hastert’s eight-year speakership might not have been particularly groundbreaking, his low-key public persona hardly memorable. But around here, mention of his name still evokes that painful moment nearly 10 years ago, just days after Hurricane Katrina struck and the federal levees crumbled, when Hastert blithely suggested that perhaps the government shouldn’t bother to rebuild.
“It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,” he told a newspaper in his native Illinois.
I’d also bet Hastert would appreciate the benefit of the doubt about now. I know more than a few Louisianians who would have appreciated the same consideration back in 2005, rather than having one of the most powerful officials in government kick them when they were down.
Still, as we embark on a summer of 10th anniversary commemorations, it’s worth remembering one important lesson from this incident. Hastert’s dismissive attitude toward the region’s plight helped set the tone for Congress’ reluctant response, not because he was a Republican but because he was in charge. Everyone talks about party and ideology, but at its root, much of Washington politics is about power.
Consider what might have happened under an alternate scenario — if, rather than Hastert, Bob Livingston had been speaker when Katrina struck.
Livingston, of course, had been all set to take over the speakership back in 1998 after House Republicans pushed Newt Gingrich aside. Had the Metairie congressman been on the job in 2005, nobody would have been talking about bulldozing his constituents’ homes.
Instead, Livingston wound up resigning amid reports that he’d cheated on his wife even as he was pushing Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The people he represented in flooded areas such as Lakeview and Metairie emerged without a well-placed champion. Louisiana was forced to piggy-back on the more influential Mississippi delegation’s requests, and basically beg for Congress’ and the Bush administration’s mercy.
It’s worth remembering all of this because you never know when history will repeat itself.
In the Senate, anyway, Louisiana may be no better positioned now than it was in 2005.
Louisiana voters ousted Democratic three-term U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in an election that was all about ideology and party and not at all about power. New Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy promised to fill her shoes as an advocate for the state’s interests, but despite his membership in the chamber’s majority, it’ll be a while before he’ll be able to match the clout that came with Landrieu’s senior posts on the appropriations and energy committees. Even now, some Republicans who backed Cassidy quietly lament the loss of Louisiana’s most prolific rainmaker.
If fellow Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter wins the gubernatorial election this fall, Louisiana will have lost two senior senators in a remarkably short stretch.
Louisiana’s House delegation is relatively junior as well, with a couple of exceptions. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany has risen through the ranks of the influential Ways and Means Committee, but the big dog is Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who holds Livingston’s old seat.
People there know perfectly well that being represented by a major player can be lucrative. Before he was chosen speaker-elect, Livingston used his chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee to secure millions for everything from flood-control infrastructure to transportation improvements, shipbuilding contracts at Avondale to the development of UNO’s Research & Technology Park.
Still, times have changed and Scalise’s role is more complicated. He won his leadership position on the promise that he’d represent the interests of his party’s most conservative, spending-averse wing. There’s also less money to spend, and there are fewer ways to spend it on district-specific needs now that earmarks have been eliminated.
While it’s hard to imagine that any major government official today would talk of letting a major city simply die — not with the rise of extreme weather in so many other parts of the country — it’s not at all clear that Louisiana would fare better were disaster to strike again.
Hopefully, we’ll never have to put it to the test.