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Bush's Hammer | The Nation

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Bush's Hammer

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The distinctly uncompassionate partner to compassionate conservative George W. Bush in 2001 will be House majority whip Tom DeLay, the Texas firebrand who is arguably the most powerful man in Congress. A gleeful hard-right partisan, nicknamed "the Hammer" for his willingness to use brute political power and for his often heavy-handed manner, DeLay is the man Democrats love to hate. During the Battle of Florida, DeLay called Vice President Gore's recount effort "nothing less than a theft in progress" and organized a phalanx of Republican aides from Capitol Hill who, neatly groomed and white-shirted, staged the ersatz riot outside the doors of the Miami-Dade canvassing board that may or may not have convinced the board's hapless officials to shut down the recount there. And, amid the bipartisan song of love currently wafting through the nation's capital, DeLay has consistently emitted off-key notes of combative rancor.

Research support provided by the Elections 2000 Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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"We are at exactly what I've worked for in my twenty-two years of elected office. We are the majority party in this country. There is no tied election," DeLay told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in early December, fired up by the fact that Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. "This is one incredible opportunity. I don't really understand some Republicans running around depressed. This is the greatest opportunity we've had in our lives. And I can't wait."

DeLay is fiercely ideological and closely tied to the Republican right, including Christian conservatives, flat-taxers, the National Rifle Association, free-enterprise libertarians and rural property-rights activists out West. Addressing the Christian Coalition's Road to Victory 2000 conference last September, DeLay thundered against what he called "a cultural coup d'état, a revolution launched by a privileged few who are determined to discredit and, ultimately, replace core American traditions." In the last session of Congress, he co-sponsored bills to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Energy, make English America's official language, establish right-to-work laws nationally, gut the Endangered Species Act, remove all limits on campaign contributions and enact a host of antilabor and antiabortion standards. "He is among the twenty most conservative members of Congress," says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.

Democrats in Congress, who've battled DeLay for the past six years, portray him as an uncompromising advocate for the conservative fringe. "Over the last two years, Tom DeLay has sabotaged a whole series of bipartisan agreements on bills, burying them in committees or stopping them in [House-Senate] conference," says an aide to minority leader Dick Gephardt. "They've been very creative about it." What's unknown, the aide said, is whether George W. Bush will allow DeLay to pull him to the right. "That's the big question. There is no indication that DeLay will consider moderating his views."

But DeLay is no cardboard-cutout right-wing fanatic. Despite his rhetorical flamboyance, he is a savvy and pragmatic behind-the-scenes player with a masterful ability to count votes, build coalitions and get things done. He controls the single most powerful political machine in Washington, running the Republican caucus in the House like a private fiefdom and maintaining unparalleled ties to the class of Washington lobbyists, political action committees, law firms and money men (collectively known as "K Street"). If President Bush and the Republicans succeed in advancing a conservative agenda in 2001, Tom DeLay will be the reason why--and, all the while, DeLay will be tugging the centrist-leaning Bush steadily rightward.

"While he's known for his ideological fervor, he can also be a steely-eyed pragmatist," says Marshall Wittman, a conservative activist at the Hudson Institute in Washington. While he will quietly press the hard-right cause, he may also be useful to Bush in keeping the right on the reservation, says Wittman. "Because of his credibility, he can also deliver the bad news to the right. He can say, 'Here's what we can get for you. It's only half a loaf.'"

Fundamentally, DeLay is about making Congress work. "He is the implementer," says Robert Rusbuldt, a senior lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents of America and a key member of DeLay's Kitchen Cabinet. "Some think he is the enforcer." DeLay himself seems to relish his behind-the-scenes role, once referring to former Speaker Newt Gingrich as the GOP's "visionary" and to House majority leader Dick Armey, a fellow Texan, as the "policy wonk," before saying of himself: "I'm the ditch digger who makes it all happen."

That ability comes from his mastery of the House through the whip organization--widely recognized as the most powerful and efficient in decades, perhaps ever--cemented by his ability to raise huge sums of money for himself, other members of Congress and the Republican Party, and his partnership with Washington's lobbying establishment.

As majority whip, it's DeLay's job to maintain an hour-by-hour sense of where Republicans are on issues that are headed to the House floor, enforcing party discipline, rounding up votes on hotly contested bills and wheeling, dealing and trading favors to win over strays. He controls the 221-strong GOP caucus through a network of fifteen senior Republicans in the whip organization, aided by his deputy, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, who for the past year has also served as Bush's liaison to Congress. The assistant whips, in turn, manage more than sixty other members, organized on a regional basis. "He's the Energizer Whip," says Bill Paxon, a close DeLay ally who retired from Congress in 1999. "His whip organization has hundreds of lines of communication to groups downtown and around the country. If you go to a whip meeting, as soon as DeLay asks for help, people in those meetings start raising their hands and phones start ringing." Most of those phones ring in the offices of K Street lobbyists, like Paxon's current one at the powerhouse firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.

Impregnable in his 22nd District, which stretches from southwest Houston into Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, DeLay has steadily climbed the rungs of power in the House, repeatedly clashing with and challenging Gingrich for primacy. He was elected whip in 1994, running against Representative Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, the candidate handpicked by Newt. "They needed a Rottweiler," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "And there aren't many members who have that kind of toughness." Recognizing that he is too divisive a figure to become Speaker of the House, Delay has instead decided to remain in the background and act as kingmaker. Three years after becoming whip, he helped organize an ill-fated conspiracy that almost toppled Gingrich in 1997, aiming to replace him as Speaker with Paxon. Finally, when Gingrich collapsed in 1998, DeLay engineered the elevation of his chief deputy whip, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who had managed his 1994 campaign for majority whip, as Speaker of the House. Immediately afterward, in the starkest display of his newfound power, DeLay hammered the House Republicans into line over the impeachment of President Clinton.

Second, and intimately connected to his power as whip, is DeLay's unrivaled ability to mobilize campaign cash and outside special interests to back the Republican agenda. Money is what makes DeLay's political machines inside and outside the House mesh. In the mid-1990s, DeLay took over as the GOP's liaison to K Street, and he charged into that task with zest. Wielding Republican control of Congress like a club, he not only began setting virtual quotas on PACs and other campaign contributions to the Republican side but kept running totals of corporate PACs and law firms that gave money to Democrats, threatening to stall their priorities if they didn't tilt far enough toward the GOP.

For the past several years, DeLay, Blunt and a couple of dozen major players from K Street have held regular Wednesday get-togethers, including Paxon, Rusbuldt and lobbyists from the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the National Restaurant Association, the American Trucking Associations and lobbyists from several of the key law firms and corporate offices in town. "It's been relatively informal," says Blunt. "It doesn't have a name, and it's not always the same people." Acting as a Kitchen Cabinet, the group would formulate strategy on legislative priorities, then parcel out the heavy lifting to build outside pressure on members of the House, often forming task forces on issues from the military to energy to healthcare. As an example, says Blunt, Mike Baroody of NAM organized about 100 lobbyists to help pass the GOP's $700 billion tax cut last session.

Though DeLay is often painted as a pillar of the Christian right, he is not necessarily a reliable ally on Capitol Hill, compared with, say, majority leader Dick Armey. "DeLay is committed to our issues, but business and tax issues seem much more dear to his heart," says Michael Bowman, vice president for government relations at the Family Research Council. "He's the K Street guy. You don't see us around those tables." DeLay says that his Christian faith was reinvigorated after watching a video by James Dobson, who founded FRC and who leads the Colorado-based Focus on the Family. That video, says DeLay, "turned my life around when I first came to Congress. He brought me back to Christ." Still, on issues like trade and gambling, says Bowman, DeLay always casts his lot with the corporate interests, not the conservative Christian groups.

DeLay's zealotry in courting K Street's lobbyists and campaign donors has, from time to time, gotten him embroiled in controversy. Three years ago he kicked up a storm when he publicly attacked the giant Electronic Industries Association for having the gall to name a conservative Democrat, former Oklahoma Representative Dave McCurdy, to lead the group. DeLay, who wanted Paxon to get the job, called it "an insult to the majority to hire a partisan Democrat." When DeLay threatened to hold up legislation that the association wanted, Democrats and good-government groups cried foul, and the GOP-controlled House ethics committee slapped DeLay with a mild rebuke.

Still, DeLay minces no words in demanding that overcautious lobbyists, who often hedge their political bets by giving to candidates on both sides of the aisle, stick with the Republicans. "We don't like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution," he says, referring to Democratic-leaning K Street types. "We know who they are. The word is out."

More recently, a shadowy network of partisan political organizations set up under DeLay's umbrella to collect both regulated and unregulated campaign cash led Representative Patrick Kennedy to file a racketeering lawsuit against DeLay and his allies. Though the suit itself was a blatant political stunt, it did serve to highlight the fast-and-loose money-changing by the majority whip's organizations, collectively dubbed "DeLay Inc." Scott Hatch, a former DeLay aide who headed the National Republican Campaign Committee, told the Washington Post in 1999, "DeLay Incorporated is one of the most savvy, aggressive political teams ever built."

DeLay Inc. starts with Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC), a leadership PAC that collected $3.4 million in 2000, more than doubling its '98 total, with contributions from banks, oil companies, drug-makers, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Philip Morris and the National Rifle Association. Key DeLay aides--including Jim Ellis, ARMPAC's director; Ed Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff and closest political adviser; and Karl Gallant, ARMPAC's former director--then helped set up or fund the Republican Majority Issues Committee (RMIC), Americans for Economic Growth, the U.S. Family Network and ROMP (Retain Our Majority Program), all of which were designed to funnel campaign cash and organize support for House members in close races.

Most controversial was RMIC. Taking advantage of a series of loopholes in campaign laws and Federal Election Commission rules, DeLay's RMIC announced its intention to raise $25 million for House Republicans, taking donations in unlimited amounts of money, not disclosing the donors' identities and then using the money to run commercials in key House districts. The concept behind RMIC was an unprecedented end run around the FEC, giving rise to copycat groups and threatening yet another major unraveling of campaign finance regulation. DeLay's blatant, in-your-face defense of RMIC led to a major outcry last summer, and, over DeLay's objections, Congress passed a bill regulating these "Section 527" organizations, forcing them to disclose their donors and putting a severe crimp into DeLay Inc. Yet DeLay remains the Republican Party's fundraiser-in-chief and, along with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, its staunchest opponent of campaign finance reform.

For Bush, DeLay's sometime recklessness is worrisome, though his power in Congress will be indispensable to the President-elect. Most likely DeLay will keep his raucous partisanship under control while helping to advance Bush's conservative agenda. One indication of DeLay's ability to restrain his baser instincts came during the 2000 campaign, when the majority whip stayed on-message with the Bush team, not rocking the Congressional boat and coordinating with Austin on issues like tax cuts, a patients' bill of rights, a prescription drug benefit for Medicare and other hot-button issues.

If DeLay does go overboard, it's likely to be on the environment. He ran a pest-control business in Texas before going into politics, and the former exterminator seems to harbor a pathological distaste for the Environmental Protection Agency, which he once compared to the Gestapo. After 1995 DeLay tried to repeal the Clean Air Act, fought to cut the EPA's enforcement budget by a third and helped add a series of environmental riders to appropriations bills in close coordination with lobbyists for polluters. In addition, he's been the chief backer of Project Relief and similar antiregulatory efforts aimed at a wholesale undoing of health, safety and environmental protections.

If DeLay rallies conservatives to the far-right agenda, he could steer Congress toward a series of bloody shipwrecks over trillion-dollar tax cuts, privatization of Social Security and Medicare, school vouchers and a deregulatory jihad. Yet with Congress divided sharply, such a radical agenda would engender enormous opposition, and DeLay knows it. Far more likely, he will orchestrate a relentless series of incremental steps in the first six months of the Bush Administration--including scattered tax cuts, tort reform, a late-term-abortion ban and a missile defense system--that cumulatively advance the right's agenda. That strategy will allow him to slowly but steadily pull the entire government to the right, culminating in the development of a budget for 2002 whose thousands of line items--which fund government departments, programs and independent agencies like EPA and OSHA--will by sheer volume overwhelm the ability of liberals and Democrats to block them.

And through all of it, DeLay will remain Bush's implementer, and they are likely to work well together. "Tom DeLay is a Main Street Republican, a blue-collar Republican, and George Bush is more of a white-collar Republican," says Rusbuldt, the insurance lobbyist and DeLay Kitchen Cabinet member. "But I think they complement each other, and I believe they'll work in a collaborative manner and rely on each other's strengths. Neither can be successful without the other."

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