Tom DeLay should resign as leader of the House Republican majority. If he doesn’t, Republicans should have the decency to remove him. He’s been rebuked unanimously four times by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee–which he then proceeded to purge and disembowel. Three of his political associates are under indictment in Texas for raising illegal corporate campaign contributions. He’s luxuriated in lavish junkets on the tab of crooked lobbyists and foreign agents. He’s given “family values” a new meaning by paying his wife and daughter $500,000 from his PACs for part-time work. And one of his cronies, “Casino Jack” Abramoff, who is under investigation for bilking Indian tribes and pressing them to donate to the GOP, says DeLay “knew everything” about what was going on.
Corruption isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a partisan issue. DeLay isn’t in trouble because he’s a conservative, as he claims. He’s in trouble because he is “The Hammer,” the “undisputed and unapologetic master”–as the Wall Street Journal puts it–of a Republican-controlled Congress whose hallmark is the flagrant exchange of legislative favors for campaign contributions.
In 1994 Newt Gingrich used charges of Democratic Party corruption to help Republicans win a majority in the House. He and his cohorts drove House speaker Jim Wright out of office for offenses including an improper book deal that wouldn’t merit even a mention on DeLay’s rap sheet. Ten years later, Gingrich is gone, a victim of his own ethical lapses and leadership failures, and DeLay, elected majority whip under Gingrich and then majority leader, has consolidated a corrupt shakedown operation that would have been the envy of Tammany Hall.
From day one, DeLay began constructing a blatant pay-to-play operation. As one example, DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee for violating “appearances” in the Westar Energy case. In 2002 Westar Energy executives wanted to cover $3 billion in losses from a failed burglar alarm business by moving the debt to its public utility and getting Kansas energy consumers to pay the tab. All that was needed was a waiver of the federal law that prohibited regulated utilities from engaging in exactly that sort of scheme. To get this written into the energy bill, Westar executives were given an itemized plan for $56,500 in contributions–$25,000 to go to DeLay’s Texas PAC and the rest to at least three other members of Congress. For this, they were told by their vice president, they would “get a seat at the table.” They made the contributions and joined DeLay for golf at a two-day energy conference at an exclusive Virginia resort. And Westar got its provision inserted in the energy bill. (It was quietly removed after the Westar CEO was indicted on forty counts, including wire fraud and falsifying records.)
DeLay’s operations give him immense power over the Republican caucus. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, DeLay collected $22.4 million from 1989 to 2004, half of which went to helping more than 200 fellow members of Congress. In return, legislators grateful for his financial support toe his line–or learn that his wrath can be costly. DeLay earned another rebuke from the ethics committee for offering GOP legislator Nick Smith what Smith initially described as a bribe to change his vote on the prescription drug bill. If Smith voted for the bill, he first reported, his son’s campaign to replace him would get $100,000 in contributions. If he continued to vote against it, his son would face costly opposition in the primary. Smith later said there was no actual sum mentioned–that would be illegal. But the House Ethics Committee unanimously rebuked DeLay for promising Smith favors in return for his vote.
While corporate lobbies get their loopholes and subsidies and Republicans get their contributions, the American people get to pick up the tab. In the prescription drug bill, for example, drug companies spent millions in lobbying costs and campaign contributions (including to some Democrats). Their generosity was suitably rewarded. The Administration suppressed the true cost of the bill, and Representative Billy Tauzin, negotiating for a million-dollar position as head of a drug company lobby, ushered the bill through committee. DeLay locked House Democrats out of the conference committee that drafted the final product and then trampled House rules by holding the vote open for three hours while pressuring Republicans like Nick Smith to provide the votes needed to pass it. In the end, the drug companies got a ban on importing cheaper drugs from Canada and a prohibition on using Medicare’s buying power to get a better price for seniors. DeLay’s corrupt money operation turned a $500 billion drug bill from a benefit for seniors into a subsidy for the drug companies.
The Republican National Committee talking points in defense of DeLay dismiss his troubles as partisan politics and suggest that his effective leadership will be demonstrated by moving forward with the Republican agenda. But that agenda–a bankruptcy bill designed by the credit card companies, tort “reform” sculpted by companies to limit their liability for injuries caused by their negligence, a Big Oil energy bill that ladles out subsidies to every energy producer while increasing our dependence on foreign oil–doesn’t distract from DeLay’s corruption but exemplifies it.
A small group of public interest organizations–the Campaign for America’s Future, Public Campaign Action Fund, Common Cause, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington–have led the charge against DeLay and done a commendable job of bringing his abuses to public attention. They’ve shaken the system enough to get Republicans on the ethics committee to try to make the controversy go away by offering to set up a carefully managed “investigation” of DeLay in return for Democratic endorsement of rules changes that would gut the committee’s ability to fight corruption. Democrats should stand firm for a real investigation and do what Republicans already charge they are doing: Use DeLay’s excesses to expose the corruption of the Congressional majority. Even as they do this, Democrats should make themselves into the party of reform, offering proposals to curb lobbyists, expose the back rooms to sunlight and move toward clean elections that limit the role of big money in politics.
Americans tend to be pretty cynical about politicians and think corruption is widespread. But periodically, when the stench gets particularly bad, they realize it’s time to clean out the stables. By 2006 Democrats may find the public ready to do just that. But DeLay’s ouster cannot wait that long. He must go–now.