The Foley Follies

From Hotline editors Chuck Todd and John Mercurio:

SPECIAL NEWS ANALYSIS: The Foley Follies

It’s been a long 48 hours for the House Republican leadership. It all started when the media began reporting on the inappropriate email and instant message exchanges between now-ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) and an underage teenager.

Let’s first agree that what Foley did was wrong, predatory and possibly illegal. And the resulting decision by Foley to resign was not only appropriate, it may be the least of the punishment, depending on whether a criminal investigation is seriously pursued.

But what’s given the House GOP leadership headaches today and possibly for the rest of the election cycle is the series of events that took place nearly a year ago when news of some initial questionable contact between an underage House page and Foley were first unearthed.

The timeline of what Speaker Dennis Hastert knew and when he knew it, has seemed to change throughout the last 48 hours. Late 9/30 p.m., the Speaker’s office released a fairly detailed explanation of when Speaker’s office first learned of the complaint. (See below post). But the explanation doesn’t answer every question.

For instance, clearly, Foley’s actions raised enough alarm bells that a number of investigating actions were started late last year and in early spring. In addition, ABC News reports that the 16-year-old page had been warned to watch out for Foley, suggesting that the congressman's behavior was an open secret among the folks that ran the page program. If this is true, it implies Foley’s behavior was more systematic and known. If so, how many members of the House GOP Conference aware?

Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA) was concerned. As he raised the issue with a number of key folks, including the clerk and NRCC Chair Tom Reynolds.

Reynolds was concerned enough that he made sure to alert Hastert. Now, Hastert, even today, doesn’t recall the conversation with Reynolds but doesn’t dispute Reynolds’ recall.

What isn’t clear is why no one other the clerk of the House and GOP Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), the member in charge of the Page program, directly spoke with Foley.

More importantly, and this question may decide whether Republicans retain control of the House, how thorough was the investigation conducted by the clerk and Shimkus? What exactly did that "investigation" discover and/or conclude? It only took ABC News about a day to go from knowing nothing to knowing, well, too much about the contact Foley had with underage pages.

Politically, how will this affect the Democratic effort to revive the "culture of corruption" mantra that had lost steam this summer?

Let’s give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. Then the worst the House GOP leadership is guilty of is a lack of curiosity and of maintaining a “culture of institutionalism” where members are always given the benefit of the doubt. But is the benefit of the doubt members are given the same standard the general public is held to under similar circumstances? And are voters really in the mood to give Congress anything close to a “benefit of the doubt?”

Read carefully the details Hastert’s office released regarding how they investigated the allegation. Is it really the regular practice of the House GOP leadership staff to keep the Speaker out of the loop when it comes to questionable conduct by Members?

Hastert is notoriously slow when encouraging a wounded member of his party to get going. From Tom DeLay to Bob Ney, Hastert never seems willing to push members into what needs to be done. Now, in all three recent cases (DeLay, Ney and Foley), the member eventually did the right thing -- but at a politically painful pace.

Hastert, for better or worse, is an institutionalist. As the release below shows, he allows the system to work even when it appears the system doesn’t work very fast, and unfortunately for him, very well.

A coach should know when a member of his team is in trouble. Hastert probably regrets that he didn’t speak directly to Foley and at least given Foley the chance to lie directly to his face.

It’s important to note that when the House GOP leadership first apparently learned of something amiss with Foley and a page, the GOP leadership team was in flux. Roy Blunt was the acting Majority Leader fighting with John Boehner to keep the job permanently.

Did the House GOP leadership vacuum that was created by DeLay’s departure lead to a situation where no one was calling the political shots? And did that sense of chaos create anxiety, preventing Republicans from taking the steps necessary to protect these underage pages?

No doubt, every member of the House GOP leadership that knew of this Foley problem before this week regrets not pursuing a more thorough investigation. But isn’t the argument Democrats will now make when reviving the “culture of corruption” tagline (or even a “culture of arrogance of power” tagline) is that the House GOP leadership just doesn’t have the capacity or the intellectual curiosity to investigate questionable activity, whether it involves a member of their own caucus or more serious public policy concerns like the war in Iraq?