House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi responded to the indictment of her GOP counterpart with a predictable partisan jab. “The criminal indictment of majority leader Tom DeLay is the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people,” Pelosi declared. That’s fair enough, particularly in the current political moment (as we go to press, a federal grand jury has indicted David Safavian, former chief procurement official for the Bush Administration, on five felony counts of making false statements and obstructing investigations of lobbyist Jack Abramoff). It’s not enough to simply replace DeLay. That’s because he’s basically right when he says he’s being hauled into court for engaging in politics as usual. That doesn’t mean DeLay should get off. Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle has made a compelling case for putting the man they call The Hammer behind bars. But believing DeLay’s ouster will end the manipulation of campaign finance rules is akin to believing weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq. DeLay’s replacement as majority leader, Roy Blunt, is no improvement. He has toiled for years in DeLay’s little shop of ethical horrors; indeed, he has been pouring dollars into the soft-money cesspool that is DeLay’s defense fund.
The problem is not appropriate cynicism regarding the shuffling of the GOP batting order; it is the sneaking suspicion that if Democrats were in charge, they would manipulate the money machine as aggressively as Republicans. What we need is recognition by top Democrats that the system is broken. Start with the fact that it took a Texas prosecutor working with a law that’s a century-old relic of the Progressive Era to force DeLay from his powerful perch–and even then, it only happened because a GOP caucus rule, put in place by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich after the 1994 “Republican revolution,” required indicted leaders to step down. The House Ethics Committee is toothless; Pelosi and reform-minded colleagues should call for an independent ethics process that investigates and addresses corruption in a nonpartisan manner. That’s step one, but it must come in conjunction with an overhaul of lobbying laws and a commitment to fundamental campaign finance reform.
The DeLay indictment has created a rare chance for change on these defining issues, along with a chance to fix our broken districting and election processes. It is notable that the indictments in Texas came the same week the Supreme Court agreed to consider a case involving a Vermont law that limits campaign spending, a development that could lead to reconsideration of the Court’s flawed 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which put so many roadblocks in the way of reformers. That same week also saw the Republican governor of Connecticut respond to a series of scandals by calling a special legislative session to consider implementing a sweeping “clean money” campaign finance system. That’s the right approach. If Democrats embrace real reform they will be able to get past the suspicion of many voters that the only difference between Tom DeLay’s Republicans and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats is that this time DeLay got caught.