Tom DeLay is quitting a re-election race he could not win and soon will exit the House he held in a hammerlock for the better part of a decade because, he says, “It was obvious to me that this election had become a referendum on me.” But if there is to be any real repair of the democracy that DeLay so damaged, November’s competition for control of the House still must be that referendum on DeLay–or, more precisely, on the “DeLayism” that continues to characterize this Congress.
The vast majority of the House Republican Caucus, and every member elected since the Republican “revolution” of 1994, owe not just their Congressional careers but their understanding of how to play the political game to the disgraced former House majority leader. It was DeLay who replaced the clumsy corruption of the reckless visionary with whom he had climbed the ladder of power, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with the rigid pay-to-play policy-making that defines Washington today. The Texas Congressman may have worked through others, most notably the hapless wrestling coach he positioned two heartbeats away from the presidency, Speaker Dennis Hastert, but no one ever doubted that this was The Hammer’s House. And so it remains.
The great deception that is foisted upon voters by defenders of the status quo is the claim that the broken machinery of government can be fixed by replacing a crooked chief mechanic. The problem, of course, is that the chief mechanic trains the team that is left behind to run the machinery, and that is particularly true in DeLay’s case. Just as Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook is right when she says that DeLay “led his colleagues to new heights of corruption,” so she is right when she says that the departure of the Bible-quoting architect of their corruption is not going to turn his acolytes into choir boys. Redemption is not in the cards for this crowd. That’s because the bug-spray specialist from Sugar Land, Texas, fundamentally altered his party and Congress by exterminating not just Democrats but those pesky Republicans who challenged his schemes. DeLay “primaried” colleagues whose ethics got in the way of his project, steering money and support to challengers who either defeated independent-thinking GOP incumbents or scared them into lining up with his agenda. Behind closed doors, senior members of the House cried, pleaded and threatened to expose DeLay, but when the time came, they voted as he told them they must.
Eventually DeLay obtained a House majority that he could deliver with such certainty that he was able to dictate not just the course of Congressional deliberations but the politics of Washington and much of the nation. That power, in turn, allowed his K Street Project to redefine campaign giving so that corporations no longer hedged bets by dividing their largesse between the two parties; they simply hired lobbyists and wrote checks as DeLay and his operatives instructed. With unlimited resources at his command, DeLay moved to create the permanent majority that would allow him to set the agenda for decades to come–not by winning elections but by manipulating the redistricting process to create an ever expanding pool of districts where Republicans could not lose. DeLay even ventured into presidential politics, dispatching an Izod-clad army of aides and allies to Miami in November 2000 to shut down a Dade County recount that he feared would deny the presidency to fellow Texan George W. Bush.