This week, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert finally admitted to sexually abusing teenagers when he was a high school wrestling coach in the 1970s, and he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for steps he took to pay off one of his victims.
Prior to his sentencing, old friends and colleagues of Hastert flooded the court with messages of support for Hastert, urging a lenient sentence. Among the most fulsome was former Rep. Tom DeLay, who said Hastert “doesn’t deserve what he is going through.”
Other former members of Congress who urged a light sentence for Hastert included John Doolittle, David Dreier, and Thomas Ewing.
Some of those messages were written before prosecutors released detailed and disturbing descriptions of the accusations against Hastert. Even after those details were made public, some still stood by Hastert. Former Rep. Doolittle was particularly adamant on this point, telling Buzzfeed:
“We don’t actually know what has happened,” he said. “We know that a few people, a handful of people, have come forward and made an allegation 30-some years after the event and well beyond the statute of limitations, which exists to protect people from these kinds of latent claims.”
He continued, “I think it’s unfair to in essence sentence him for crimes for which he was never charged and never got a trial on. That’s what’s going on here. The people who are making this issue want to sentence him for something that he was never tried and convicted of. And that’s wrong. And I’m outraged by it.”
Hastert has been accused of abusing five boys, but he will never be charged in connection with any of those cases of abuse, because, as Doolittle says, the statute of limitations to bring charges in Illinois expired years ago.
If Hastert had violated federal law, though, the story may have been much different.
There are not many child sexual abuse cases that fall under federal jurisdiction. As the Justice Department explains: “Except in limited circumstances, federal laws typically do not apply to child sexual abuse matters that takes place wholly inside a single state.” Essentially, the abuse has to have happened on federally owned or managed lands or properties.
But current law stipulates that there is no federal statute of limitations for sex crimes involving children. And that is all thanks to the House Republicans of the early 2000s, led by then-Speaker Dennis Hastert.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives, repeatedly passed bills mandating life sentences for repeat sexual abusers of children—so-called “two strikes” laws, all of which would have severely toughened federal laws and sentencing requirements around sexual abuse of minors, child pornography, and kidnapping. None were taken up by the Senate.
Then some national news changed the political situation. You may recall the story of Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped, at age 14, in the summer of 2002, and rescued in March of 2003.
At the time, the AMBER Alert system, an emergency broadcast system for missing children, was established in numerous states and municipalities, but not nationally. Smart’s father Ed furiously lobbied Congress to establish AMBER Alert nationwide, even imploring Congress to do so on television mere hours after his daughter was found.
At that point, an AMBER Alert bill had already passed the Senate, with support from President Bush. In the House, though, Republicans decided to use the popularity of the AMBER Alert proposal to cram through a new version of a “two strikes” bill they had failed to advance last year. This strategy was not popular—Ed Smart personally attacked Rep. Sensenbrenner for his political opportunism—but it worked.
The amalgam of the AMBER Alert proposal and the “two strikes” bill became the Child Abduction Prevention Act. It was, in part, an all-purpose conservative wish list of tougher anti-crime measures. One of those measures, interestingly, was the total elimination of the statute of limitations for sex crimes involving minors.
The Child Abduction Prevention Act passed the House, with support from the aforementioned Rep. Doolittle, Rep. Dreier, and Rep. Delay. As speaker of the House, though, Dennis Hastert didn’t vote for it.
The House had made it clear that it would not support a plain AMBER Alert bill, and out of the conference committee came a bill, now called the “Prosecutorial Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003” or “PROTECT Act,” that looked much more like what the House had passed than what the Senate had passed.
Despite the lopsided votes, some leading Democrats sided with Rehnquist — a conservative Republican — in complaining about the provisions that would constrain the sentencing authority of federal trial judges.
Republicans rebuffed the criticism.
“Those who try to stop this bill are subverting the will of the American people who want us to put kidnappers in jail and protect our children,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “It is time to help parents protect their children.”
Because of their willingness to exploit the Smart kidnapping, and to hijack the debate around how to respond to it, conservatives scored a series of major policy victories that, less than a year earlier, looked to be totally dead in the Senate. This is the sort of clever maneuvering that defined Dennis Hastert’s tenure as speaker of the House.
In this case, of course, he was exploiting the understandable nationwide disgust felt toward people who do what he himself had done. And if the states had done as Congress had, and eliminated statutes of limitations on all child sexual abuse crimes, Hastert might currently be serving out a life sentence, rather than wondering if he’ll survive 15 months in prison.
On the final House yeas and nays vote on the conference report for the PROTECT Act, Hastert actually voted with the rest of the chamber. Rep. Hastert’s aye is duly recorded in the Congressional Record.
Dennis Hastert is old, ill, and frail. The statute of limitations for the crimes he is accused of expired many years ago. Because of this, his friends think it is unfair that he be imprisoned. Hastert’s friends, as you can see, did not display much sympathy for aged sex abusers until their former colleague turned out to be one.
When these people, and Hastert himself, were actually in a position to determine how the law would treat people like Hastert (only then, of course, they never imagined that one of their own would end up here), they made it plain that they did not think those people should ever escape justice for their crimes. Now, they show a bit of nuance. Ex-Rep. John Doolittle, who explicitly voted to eliminate it, suddenly understands that the statute of limitations “exists to protect people from these kinds of latent claims.” Maybe sometimes, I guess they are now saying, certain sex offenders should get to escape justice?
Meanwhile, absurd sex offender laws much less defensible than extended statutes of limitations have ruined the lives of many people much more sympathetic than Dennis Hastert, from juveniles convicted of sex crimes for consensual relationships to people placed on sex offender registries indefinitely for crimes as inconsequential as public urination. Some of those people probably wish Hastert’s friends had felt this sympathy a bit earlier, when they and people like them were making our laws.