Hastert Brings Education Experience to Role as Speaker
It was J. Dennis Hastert's 57th birthday and just three days before he was poised to become the speaker of the House of Representatives. Parents of boys in wrestling clubs all over Illinois called Yorkville High School to see whether he was still coming to the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation annual tournament.
"He was early," said Diane Wallin, a former student of Mr. Hastert's and the mother of two young wrestlers. Mr. Hastert, who spent 16 years teaching and coaching in the suburban community 40 miles west of Chicago, told the crowd on Jan. 2 that wrestling builds character and dedication.
"He's the same down-home guy," Ms. Wallin said in a telephone interview. Except for the Secret Service sweep of the Yorkville gym, perhaps.
And, Ms. Wallin predicted, the man known simply as "Coach" will continue to put education first even though he has risen to second in the line of succession to the U.S. presidency.
Last week, Mr. Hastert, a Republican and six-term House veteran from Illinois' 14th Congressional District, was voted presiding officer of the House, which means he comes just after the vice president for succession to the presidency. He was chosen after Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., withdrew following revelations that he had had extramarital affairs. Before that, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., stepped down after the Republicans posted a disappointing showing in the November elections.
The turmoil in the House leadership coincided with the dramatic impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
In such a climate, political analysts say Mr. Hastert may be called on to help restore public faith in government during a time of particular divisiveness in Washington.
The new speaker, regarded by peers in both parties as decent and fair, has already turned to policy. He recently outlined an agenda for the 106th Congress that includes a vow to boost funding for local schools. In addition, he gave his first interview as speaker to Channel One, the television news program broadcast to schools across the country.
Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House education committee, was by his side at a recent news conference. Mr. Goodling, who is also a former educator, and Mr. Hastert told reporters the speaker's agenda would include making sure federal K-12 programs are effective and that local school districts would gain more funding and control over them.
"He's somebody who understands education and its importance," said Mr. Goodling, who faces the renewal of the major elementary and secondary education law this year. "He will do just fine."
"His only problem will be, do we have enough Republicans who understand that this a team sport and that he is the coach," Mr. Goodling noted in a recent interview. "It's much easier to coach a team than to coach a bunch of individual players."
The chief deputy majority whip since the 104th Congress, Mr. Hastert has been a political coach of sorts, responsible for advancing key GOP bills by lining up support and counting members' votes.
Though he is better known as the House Republican point man on health-care reform, Mr. Hastert has made headlines for charging that Title IX, which bars gender discrimination in federally funded education programs, forces schools to drop non-revenue-drawing men's sports such as wrestling. Before coming to Congress, in three terms in the Illinois legislature, he worked on education and child-abuse-prevention laws.
Other than that, many education lobbyists say they don't quite know what to make of him. But the Christian Coalition has given Mr. Hastert a 100 percent rating for his support of private school choice.
"We feel very good about having him take over the speakership," said Jeffrey K. Taylor, the conservative lobbying group's director of governmental relations.
Expanding school choice will be the litmus test of Mr. Hastert's leadership, said Darcy Olsen, the entitlements-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute here. "Anything else is an unwillingness to fight the battle on the grounds it needs to be fought on," Ms. Olsen said.
There is no question of his dedication to schools, said Thomas D. Engler, the superintendent of 2,100-student Yorkville school district, where Mr. Hastert's wife, Jean, still teaches elementary physical education.
"It's refreshing not to have another attorney," Mr. Engler said. "Dennis truly represents the education community."
Mr. Goodling is counting on a speaker who will get to work.
"The press will have a hard time finding him," he said. "I'm sure he won't be out all over the world giving speeches and so on."
Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 26Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Hastert Brings Education Experience to Role as Speaker