The sordid tale of Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida and his sexually predatory emails to a former House page from north Louisiana has unfolded like a cheap novel -- only this story is all too real. Foley, 52, resigned two weeks ago and checked himself into an alcohol rehab facility amid revelations that he sent dozens of creepy email messages to a 16-year-old former page from the district of Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Monroe. Foley now claims that he was a victim of sexual molestation by an unnamed clergyman when he was a teenager. That's a pathetic excuse for an excuse. In fact, it cheapens the sincere concerns expressed by Democrats and Republicans alike for the Louisiana teen who was Foley's victim.
Since Foley's resignation, the nation has learned that he preyed upon pages for years -- and that his penchant for hitting on them was revealed to GOP House leaders as long ago as 2003. Foley's transgressions are egregious enough. That House Speaker Dennis Hastert tried to keep a lid on this scandal from the get-go is reprehensible. For that reason alone, Hastert, R-Ill., faces increasing pressure to step down as Speaker. Based on what's known so far, he should step down -- or at least step aside temporarily -- so that the House can conduct an independent, honest investigation into the whole mess.
Coming to light as it has at the height of the campaign season, the Foley affair threatens to tip the House balance from GOP to Democratic -- a very real possibility even before the story broke. Sadly, political operatives from both parties are trying to spin every new revelation to their team's advantage, which serves only to turn a deadly serious matter into a political sideshow. Politics aside, House leaders from both parties must act swiftly to restore public confidence in the integrity of Congress, in the House's ability to investigate and discipline itself, and in the page program that otherwise gives thousands of teens a chance to see Congress at work. The best way to start is for House Republican leaders to come clean about the entire mess. As long as Hastert sits in the Speaker's chair, there is no reason for the public to believe that an honest and impartial investigation will occur in the House. Hastert therefore has to go.
Calling for the resignation of a House Speaker is not something we do lightly. We do this solely because the reasons for demanding his removal are compelling. At a minimum, Hastert put the interests of his party ahead of the safety and security of America's youth. Such a man is not morally fit to lead the House.
Think about it. When the affair first came to light, Hastert claimed he didn't know about it beforehand. Then he averred that his staff may have heard about it earlier, but he wouldn't necessarily have expected them to tell him about it. Then he said he may have heard about it early on, but that it was part of a discussion of many matters -- and he was so busy managing the House on other fronts that he may have just forgotten about it.
That last excuse is as preposterous as it is disingenuous. Try to imagine that conversation for a moment:
STAFFER: Mr. Speaker, we have the defense appropriations bill in conference this afternoon, the water resources bill is being marked up tomorrow, the President wants to have dinner with you tonight, and Congressman Foley is trying to have sex with underage male pages.
HASTERT: Really? What time is dinner? Can we have salmon again?
Okay, we're exaggerating -- but no more so than Hastert and his defenders when they try to excuse his inaction. But wait, it gets worse. The House has a mechanism for acting upon concerns about the page program, one that was put in place more than 20 years ago in response to another congressional predator (that one a Democrat). The board that oversees the program includes two Republicans and one Democrat. At some point after the Foley problem came to the attention of Hastert and/or his staff, only one member of that committee was told about it -- Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who also happens to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC chair is the GOP's top political cheerleader in the House and the man responsible for maintaining the party's majority in Congress. So what did Reynolds do? Foley got a private verbal warning and the entire affair was swept under the rug. If you don't think there's something seriously wrong with this picture, then you might as well email photos of your underage sons to former Congressman Foley at his new home in Florida.
The FBI, the House ethics committee and Florida officials are now investigating Foley and the House leadership's handling of this matter. On the surface, that's encouraging. But let's not forget that Florida's governor is the President's brother and the FBI does not move at lightning speed. As long as the House remains under Hastert's leadership, there is no reason to expect much from any House investigation into Hastert's failure to act. He must step down now.