Has Tom DeLay–a k a The Hammer–hit his last nail? Not yet, but the Republican House majority leader has sustained his own whacks recently for a series of unethical actions. Two reports by the House Ethics Committee outline several of the corrupt ways DeLay maintains (and abuses) power; they also show that the Congressional ethics system allows Representatives to escape serious penalties for improper acts that undermine democratic governance. Should a member of Congress be permitted to attempt to bribe a colleague, trade access for contributions, and use federal resources to mount a political vendetta? DeLay did all that, but the House Ethics Committee merely slapped his wrist.

The reports released by the committee examined four sleazy deals involving DeLay. In May 2003, when Democratic Texas legislators left Texas to thwart (temporarily) a GOP redistricting plan designed to enlarge the Texas GOP House delegation, DeLay’s staff asked the Federal Aviation Administration to locate the legislators’ plane in an effort to force them home to vote on the plan. In May 2002, as Congress was considering an energy bill, he held a golfing fundraiser at which he asked energy company execs what they wanted to see in the legislation. Last November, as Republicans were trying to pass Medicare legislation favored by George W. Bush, DeLay leaned on a GOP holdout, Representative Nick Smith, offering to endorse Smith’s son in a Congressional primary if Smith voted for the bill. And in September, three fundraisers for Texans for a Republican Majority, a PAC linked to DeLay, and eight corporate PAC donors were indicted in Texas for allegedly funneling illegal contributions to GOP state candidates.

In the committee’s eyes, the FAA caper, the energy company fundraiser and DeLay’s attempt to pressure Smith merited only an admonition. ("It is improper for a Member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another Member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal," the committee said in its report on the Smith affair.) The committee deferred action on the TRMPAC matter while it is in the Texas courts. This was all more protection than punishment for DeLay, whose reputation as a vengeful SOB will keep Republicans from publicly assailing him (or pressuring him to leave) unless his departure comes to be seen as inevitable. But his actions must have offended the GOP committee members for them to agree to any admonitions, even these inadequate ones.

The latest round of DeLay news is not shocking. In 1999 the Ethics Committee privately chastised him for threatening an industry lobby group for hiring a Democrat. DeLay has also invited corporate lobbyists to participate in the legislative process–as long as they have donated to the Republicans. He is the embodiment of the corporate-political cronyism of Washington. (For an example of this sort of corruption on a much grander scale, see Naomi Klein’s article on page 13 about James Baker’s conflict of interest between his role as Bush’s envoy on Iraqi debt forgiveness and his role as senior counselor and equity partner in the Carlyle Group, which is part of a consortium aggressively urging Kuwait to hire it to insure that Kuwait gets every penny it can from Iraq.)

DeLay is–or should be–an embarrassment to the GOP. Public interest groups and Democratic partisans are justified in calling for a more extensive investigation of his mobsterlike conduct. He should be running from the law, not making it.