By David Keene - 04/16/07 08:26 PM EDT
The new Speaker seemed at first inclined to appoint him, but backed off as Republicans and Democrats with the media suggested that handing the reins of so important a committee to a man with Hastings’s background would be a terrible mistake. In the end, of course, Pelosi acquiesced and the congressman seemed to drift into a well- earned obscurity.
But Hastings is not one to remain in obscurity for long or to willingly follow the rules that apply to others. As a sort of consolation prize he was allowed to become chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, on which he has served for some time. Better known as the “Helsinki Commission,” it was established by Congress in 1976 to monitor the human- rights progress promised by the 1975 Helsinki Accords and has played an important role in the development of democracy, human- rights protection and the rule of law in Eastern Europe.
The Commission was set up and remained both bi-partisan and non-partisan until Hastings replaced Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (R) as Chairman in January. Although the Commission is comprised of 21 members, responsibility rests with an “Administration Committee” comprised of the House and Senate co-chairmens and their counterparts from the minority party. The chairmanship itself is held alternately by majority- party appointees from the two houses of Congress.
On taking over the chairmanship, Hastings announced that four members of the top professional staff would be fired. Unfortunately for him, however, the statute establishing the Commission specifically requires hirings and firings to be approved by a majority of the Administration Committee, which consists of Hastings, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Sen. Brownback and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Smith and Brownback immediately objected to the unilateral and illegal action and pointed out that the only time anything even approaching this was contemplated was back in 1995, when the Republicans sought to fire one professional staff member, but reversed course when just one of the Democrats on the Administration Committee objected.
Three of the staffers kept going to work, though Hastings had their computer access cut off and instructed his chief of staff to do everything possible to get rid of them. Eventually one professional, Mark Milosch, went to court. Mislosch is no political hack. He worked for Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and , holds both a law degree and a Ph.D. in European History, a subject he has taught at the university level. He speaks a number of languages, including German, Italian, French and Romanian, and has written extensively within his field of expertise. He was lured to the Commission by Sen. Brownback during his chairmanship and was regarded by all as just the sort of expert professional the Commission has always tried to hire and retain.
Mislosch would have won his suit, but then something no one seems able to explain happened. Senator Brownback, who hired Milosch and the others Hastings wanted fired, went silent and threw his support to the new chairman, mooting the suit and making the illegal firings legal under the statute. Thus he became an accomplice in Hastings’s unprecedented attempt to politicize the Commission and, in the process, abandoned people he had enticed to join what they justifiably were led to believe was a professional and non-partisan staff.
No one who knows Alcee Hastings was surprised by his flouting of the law or his willingness to do whatever he deemed necessary to get his own way, but those who have followed what happened remain dumbfounded by the help he got from a supposedly conservative Republican senator.
Most who know him say that Brownback is a good man, but some say he just doesn’t like controversy. That may be, but the senator wants to be president — and sometimes presidents have to stand up for their beliefs and decisions. The way he allowed himself to be so easily rolled by a man like Hastings doesn’t say much for how he might perform if he ever makes it to the White House.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).