Ethics Chairman Admired in GOP

Posted February 2, 2005 at 6:38pm

Here’s a quick piece of advice for Members who have business before the House ethics committee: Know your NASCAR.

In the hours after Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) was named to succeed Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) as chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, close friends and colleagues described Hastings with a variety of terms — a savvy politician, a peacemaker, an institutionalist, a wit and, perhaps above all else, a car racing “nut.”

“If you really want to get him going, ask him about NASCAR,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “He knows every driver, every number and the color of every car.”

It was Simpson who branded Hastings a NASCAR “nut,” and he believes his friend’s lunacy extends beyond the racetrack.

“We’ve always known he was crazy,” Simpson joked. “Why else would he take the ethics committee?”

Hastings, who turns 64 next Monday, may need that NASCAR hobby as an outlet for his frustration now more than ever, as every move he makes in his new position will open him up to criticism from his own party, Democrats, watchdog groups and the press.

Those who know him best say that Hastings has developed a thick skin over the years and that he brings a sense of balance and the right temperament to guide the House through thorny issues.

“He has a very strong backbone and can stand up to Members,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose district borders Hastings’. “You have to be able to separate Members’ friendships from the House and its needs.”

Recently retired Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) has known Hastings since 1976, when they worked together on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign.

“Doc has a great sense of humor and that’s one of the ways he gets along with people so well,” Dunn said. “He has an easy laugh, an easy rapport with people.”

When Hastings was in the Washington state Legislature and Dunn ran the state GOP, she put him in charge of the party’s platform committee. “I did that because it was always such a contentious job and he did it beautifully,” she recalled.

Like Dunn, Walden pointed to Hastings’ dry wit as a key to his success in tough positions. “He can defuse situations with his sense of humor,” Walden said.

Hastings is no stranger to controversial topics on Capitol Hill. In 2002, he was named to chair a four-member investigative subcommittee tasked with examining a variety of charges against then-Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio). That probe eventually led to the House’s expulsion of the disgraced lawmaker, who now resides in a federal prison.

Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who has been friends with Hastings since they were elected together in 1994, served on the Traficant subcommittee and emerged from the experience with a new appreciation of Hastings’ skills.

“He was so common-sense and so pragmatic, but his intellect served him well also,” said the Mississippi lawmaker.

Wicker said Hastings’ political instincts were sharp from the moment he arrived in Congress.

“I was president of the freshman class, and I realized right off the bat that when Doc Hastings told the group about something that was going to happen … he was generally correct,” Wicker said. “He’s got a good mind and he sees several moves ahead.”

But while Hastings earns praise as a tactician, his colleagues say he will also think beyond strategic considerations.

“He’s concerned about the right resolution of an issue and not just the politics of it,” Simpson said.

The Idaho lawmaker also lauded Hastings’ discretion, saying he has been friends with Hastings for several years and has played golf with him, but has never heard him mention his work on the watchdog panel.

“I didn’t even know he was on the ethics committee [until recently], and you have to be that way on that committee,” Simpson said.

In handing Hastings the ethics post, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) elevated a fellow institutionalist. Hastings is one of about a half-dozen lawmakers who are regularly tapped by Hastert’s office to serve as Speaker Pro Tem during important floor debates.

The Washington lawmaker was in the chair during the notorious November 2003 Medicare vote, which was held open for three hours over the angry objections of Democrats. That same year, he also presided when Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) made an emotional apology to his colleagues for calling the Capitol Police to clear Democrats out of a Ways and Means Committee room.

“I really believe in the institution,” Hastings said in a 2003 interview. “I really do have a strong belief that you have open debate and the rights of the minority are respected and then you vote.”