It’s clear that the indictment of Dennis Hastert has raised more questions than it’s provided answers. But I suspect a lot of people are asking the wrong ones. Hastert’s “misconduct” may turn out to be of sexually predatory nature, in which case talk of how much his reputation is worth is picayune compared the nature of crime. But there are questions about what he did that are applicable to the entire industry he represents.
The most obvious question, that’s also the least relevant for most Americans: What is the “misconduct” that Hastert is alleged to have been trying to cover up?
This is an important question, to be sure, but indicting Hastert on the financial charges and lying to investigators rather than on whatever misconduct occurred seems to indicate that those charges were the best investigators could come up with. Presumably, if the misconduct was illegal, they’d have mentioned that—and indicted him for it. If the conduct was sexual abuse, as sources are saying, then the statute of limitations has run out. It follows that Hastert wasn’t paying hush money to stay out of jail, he was protecting his reputation.
A better question, and one that many Washington watchdogs leapt on quickly: How did Hastert happen to have enough money lying around that paying out $3.5 million was even within the realm of possibility?
Hastert’s ability to participate in the blackmail is, after all, itself a general indictment of D.C.’s “revolving door” money culture, in which former lawmakers move easily from government into lobbying. In Hastert’s case, the ability to profit off of one’s legislative position is especially galling: While in office, Hastert used the earmarking process to turn his investment in some Illinois farmland into a profit of 140 percent when a federal highway project just happened to make its way through those very fields. Indeed, it was this instance of a completely legal form of insider trading that helped prompt Congress to end earmarks.
And, of course, Hastert made even more money once he was out of office. One study found that, on average—and when the information is publicly available—former lawmakers get a 1,425 percent raise when they make the jump from Capitol Hill to K Street. Hastert, who was worth between $4 million and $17 million when he left Congress, was making $175,000 as a representative. His K Street bump would be to almost $2.5 million a year.
Okay, he made his money as a lobbyist, doing presumably sneaky lobbyist things. That raises the next question: How can Hastert’s reputation even be worth $3.5 million?
Hastert is a former member of Congress known to have profited off of a shady land deal and he’s a registered lobbyist—these are already the two professions that Americans regard as the most disreputable careers available. They are literally last (lobbyist) and second-to-last (congressman) on Gallup’s list of what jobs Americans regard as “honest” and “ethical.” What would one have to do to be thought even less of?
Given the ickiness of what has been reported, it might not be good to think about that question too hard, so let’s turn that question on its head: What kind of reputation could be worth spending $3.5 million to protect?
To consider $3.5 million a reasonable sum to spend on protecting one’s reputation, presumably it has to be worth a lot more than that. And, indeed, in the context of the lobbying world, $3.5 million just isn’t that much money. Especially considering that Hastert was apparently making payoffs over time. Special interest groups spent almost 1,000 times that—$3.2 billion—in 2015 alone. If Hastert viewed protecting his reputation as a kind of investment in future earnings, $3.5 million is on the scale of buying an alarm system for your home, not buying a whole other house.
And, it’s important to remember, what Hastert was covering up with that hush money was not a “reputation” as an average citizen might conceive of it: something akin to honor or trustworthiness or fidelity. A lobbyist’s reputation, after all, actually hinges on his or her established lack of principles. A lobbying client for someone who is a former member of Congress is paying a premium for that person’s willingness to engage in barely-legal favor-trading. A lobbyist’s prices go up the more corrupt he is. Who wants to hire an honest one?