By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 10/20/05 12:00 AM EDT
As counsel to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Ted Van Der Meid’s preference for order is legendary on Capitol Hill.
After a meeting, for example, Van Der Meid’s first instinct is to straighten up the chairs.
Known as the insider’s insider, Van Der Meid — who is 48, bookish, publicity-shy and meticulous — oversees administrative issues Hastert must deal with as the House of Representatives’ chief elected officer. The Speaker has put him in charge of tracking the perks that he can dispense to lawmakers; overseeing of the Capitol Visitor Center, which GOP sources nicknamed “Van Der Meid’s ditch”; and monitoring the Capitol’s aesthetics, including the artwork, drapes, carpeting, office space and custom-made furniture.
“It’s an avocation. He lives for that stuff,” a top GOP aide said of Van Der Meid’s interest in the Capitol’s appearance.
He is known for his fine tastes in design; he ate lunch yesterday at the trendy Asian bistro Ten Penh.
In his role as legal adviser to Hastert, he reviews paperwork that Hastert signs his name to. Many lobbyists seek Hastert’s signature on letters seeking to change the policies of regulatory agencies. But a GOP lobbyist said Van Der Meid has a firm policy of not intervening on these matters, saying, “Ted won’t let the Speaker do that.”
Van Der Meid, however, is best-known for his work on ethics issues, in part because he has been at the center of the nastiest ethics battles since serving as staff director of the ethics committee for three years in the mid-1990s.
“He’s a jack of all trades, master of none,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), whom Van Der Meid worked for when LaHood served as former Minority Leader Bob Michel’s (R-Ill.) chief of staff. “He has a lot of influence. He does everything that [Hastert Chief of Staff Scott Palmer] does not want to do.”
“He has the Speaker’s ear, and he’s a good man,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
House Speakers have always empowered political troubleshooters, but they usually disperse power among several senior aides. Yet, in Hastert’s office, everyone is subordinate to Palmer, GOP sources said. The degree of influence that Van Der Meid has offers a view of just how powerful staff has become since Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, a Republican lobbyist said, adding that, “Ted fits in with that kind of style.”
Van Der Meid’s colleagues, speaking on condition of anonymity, praise his intelligence, thoroughness and loyalty but say that he lacks an appreciation of the public-relations aspect of politics.
As the ethics committee’s staff director in 1995, he was in the unenviable position of serving the House Republicans’ political interests and protecting the House’s institutional integrity while the panel investigated allegations that former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) used tax-deductible money for political purposes and made inaccurate statements to investigators.
Van Der Meid survived the process, even winning praise from a subsequent committee chairman. Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the ethics committee after the House vote to rebuke Gingrich, said, “I found Ted to be somebody I could work with. At least in my dealings, he operated on a nonpartisan basis and was amenable to working things out and moving ahead.”
The House maintained an ethics truce until last year, when then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) filed an ethics complaint against then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). A month before the 2004 election, the ethics committee issued its third admonishment of DeLay in the 108th Congress.
Rankled by the ethics panel’s actions against DeLay, Van Der Meid began moving quickly and secretly to revise the House ethics rules, Republican sources said.
“He drove that process,” the top GOP aide said. “There was no need to hurry the process, but it was intentional. No assessment of Ted’s role can be complete without examining what went wrong with the ethics thing.”
Another senior GOP leadership aide said, “As much as anything, [the process] was hurried and not well-understood. When things get rushed, [lawmakers] feel like they’re jammed, and it’s not a good position to put people in.”
Simultaneously, DeLay’s aides argued that if a GOP conference rule requiring an indicted Republican leader to step down did not exist, Ronnie Earle — the Travis County prosecutor — would not indict DeLay, GOP sources said.
Some Republican aides and leaders, including Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (Calif.) and GOP conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), opposed the timing of the House rules changes. But GOP leaders inserted them in the rules package, which the House approved on a party-line vote Jan. 4.
Later in January, sources say, Hastert accepted Van Der Meid’s advice and dismissed from the ethics committee its chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), as well as Reps. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.).
Although GOP aides maintained that House rules would have prevented Hefley from serving an additional term, Van Der Meid worried that Hefley would push Hastert to extend his term, well-placed GOP sources say.
Van Der Meid recommended that Hastert install Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) as chairman of the ethics panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and name Reps. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) to the two open seats.
The media and watchdog groups ripped the appointments because the lawmakers either had accepted campaign donations from DeLay or had given to his legal defense fund. Van Der Meid was blamed for poorly vetting the candidates.
And when Hastings proposed to give his chief of staff an oversight role at the ethics panel, Democrats pummeled the plan and shut down the committee.
In April, Hastert relented and the House voted to reverse the controversial changes to the ethics rules. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, Hastings blamed the media and Democrats for mischaracterizing his plans to staff the committee.
“If you don’t screw up the rules package, you don’t shut things down over staffing,” the GOP source said. “When he gets into policy issues, that’s when [Van Der Meid’s] tin ear for the persuasive part of politics starts to work against him.”
A former senior GOP aide discounted the criticism leveled against Van Der Meid, saying, “He was tasked to look at ways ethics rules did not afford due process to members of Congress. And he did that.”
Van Der Meid did not comment for this article.