Why is Hastert Leaving?

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What a week. First Rove, now Dennis Hastert, who, until last year, was the most powerful man in Congress. As recently as January, the former Speaker of the House had emphatically denied that he was thinking about calling it quits. “I just think that was wishful thinking on the part of some people,” the Illinois Congressman had told the local CBS station in Chicago. But now CBS says its sources “expect Hastert to announce he will not seek reelection next year.”

It’s too early to say why Hastert is calling it quits, and we’ll probably never know for sure (I’ll bet, like Rove, he’ll be wanting to get in some quality time with the family). I’d guess Hastert might be tired of hearing about how he helped squander the Republican majority with his botched handling of the Congressional page sex scandal. And it probably hasn’t helped that the scandal refuses to go away: the Rev. KA Paul, who was widely discredited even before Hastert discussed the page woes with him last year in a private meeting, was recently arrested in a Beverly Hills hotel on suspicion of “lewd and lascivious acts with a minor.” Still, many in Illinois will be sad to see Hastert go, if for no other reason than his ability to bring home giant slabs of pork. While it’s true that Speaker Pelosi is also sprinkling some bacon bits these days, at least she hasn’t been accused of self-dealing. Hastert won an earmark for a freeway through the middle of nowhere, driving up the value of an adjacent property that he owned, which he then sold at a profit.

“Hastert was one of the key players in rewriting how business on the floor of the House of Representatives is done,” says John Laesch, a Navy veteran who ran against Hastert last year and came closer to winning than anyone had thought possible. “The pay-to-play system that he and Tom DeLay created puts the people’s business behind closed doors. I think that is probably ultimately what he will be remembered for in Washington, D.C.” Laesch is one of three Democrats making a bid for the seat this year in the Illinois primary. What would he do differently if he gets elected? “Well,” he says, pausing to think for a moment. “Everything.”

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