Nixed Photo-Op Riles Blue Dogs

Hastert Accused of Abusing Power

Posted October 31, 2003 at 5:36pm

In a rare partisan attack on Speaker Dennis Hastert, the conservative Blue Dog Democrats have accused the Illinois Republican of abusing his authority by blocking them from holding a press event at the Capitol Visitor Center construction site.

In a scathing letter dated Oct. 29, the leaders of the 37-member Blue Dog Coalition charged Hastert with improperly blocking the group from holding its already scheduled photo opportunity on the deficit at the CVC site. Further, the Blue Dogs accused Hastert of applying a double standard for use of the site, arguing the Speaker used the same area just a day earlier for an event with a company based in his state.

“Mr. Speaker, it is an unfortunate violation to use the powers of your office to prevent Members of Congress from exercising their duties as elected officials, especially when you don’t hold your self to the same standards,” wrote the coalition’s co-chairmen, Reps. Baron Hill (Ind.), Charlie Stenholm (Texas) and Jim Turner (Texas), and Rep. Dennis Moore (Kan.), the Whip.

John Feehery, spokesman for Hastert, disputed the charges, saying the Blue Dogs are making false assertions about the Speaker and that Hastert has been consistently fair about the use of the CVC. Hastert believes the visitors center is “not a prop” for any event unrelated to the construction, and would apply the same standards to Republicans including himself, Feehery said.

“To make these personal attacks is unfortunate,” he added. “People expect more from the Blue Dogs than this.”

The Blue Dogs charge that the Speaker instructed the Architect of the Capitol to put the kibosh on their Oct. 10 event. Architect Alan Hantman told the Blue Dogs that the group’s photo opportunity was political and therefore not allowed at the CVC site.

The Architect had earlier told the Blue Dogs it was OK to go ahead with the press event. They eventually moved both the date and location of the press conference, holding it on the Capitol steps overlooking the site the same day they sent the letter to Hastert.

“Mr. Speaker, we feel your office inappropriately intervened in an official and justified event on the national debt,” the Blue Dogs wrote. “It is entirely justified for Members of Congress … to use this hole created by the Capitol Visitor’s Center construction site to draw attention to such an important national issue.”

Feehery, however, countered that as a general rule Members shouldn’t use the site for purposes unrelated to the visitors center.

“The Blue Dogs didn’t want to have a press conference on the CVC, they wanted to have it on the deficit,” Feehery said. “It had nothing to do with the important work going on down there. If we let everyone use it for a political point they want to make, they’d never get any work done down there.”

But a senior Blue Dog, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Speaker’s action was surprising and unjustified given the press conference was policy related, not political. Plus, the Member said, the move was unfair given Hastert himself had hosted a photo opportunity there one day earlier.

The Blue Dogs allege Hastert held an event at the site with Caterpillar equipment and operators, saying in the letter: “An event some might consider political considering that Caterpillar is in your district.”

“He can do it, and then we can’t?” the Member asked.

Feehery, however, took issue with the Blue Dogs’ allegations that the Speaker was photographed at the site at his own political event. Feehery insisted Hastert was there in an official capacity inspecting the area and was captured on film while there.

“They are wrong,” Feehery said. “Someone took the picture. It was not in any way a press conference.”

The Blue Dogs said they want to ensure the Speaker doesn’t block future events, and want him to be aware of their “displeasure” with his actions. They argue it sets a bad precedent, and standards for press events should be universal for all Members.

“This wasn’t a safety question,” said the Democratic lawmaker, adding that “political events are held around the Capitol all the time. I would hope that in the future, the Speaker would allow the site to be used just like any other place.”

The charge against Hastert is notable given that the Illinois Republican is widely respected by both parties and rarely the specific target of attack by Democrats.

A high-level Blue Dog staffer said the group decided the issue was serious enough to warrant standing up to the highest-ranking House Member.

“Enough is enough,” said the aide. “We understand we’re not in control, but sometimes we have to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”