David Keene and his crew of die-hard Tom DeLay supporters are right about one thing: The current push against the majority leader won’t stop with him.
Only they’re not right for precisely the reasons they claim — and perhaps not even for those they believe.
As you probably know, Keene, Morton Blackwell and a host of other conservative worthies have recently argued that the concerted push by activist groups close to the Democratic Party to topple DeLay isn’t about his ethics. He’s just an inviting target, they reason. The real aim is to end the conservative ascendancy on Capitol Hill. Ditch DeLay and the same groups will just come gunning for the man or woman who takes his place, they tell their conservative brethren. So this is the place to draw the line in the sand.
That’s true as far as it goes. Corrupt politicians are always ready targets for the political opposition. And the Democrats, like every other political party, will keep up the heat until they can restore themselves to power.
But the simple truth is that Tom DeLay is not simply a majority leader who happens also to be corrupt. His corrupt practices are central — indeed, inextricably tied — to the way he’s run and built up the House Republican caucus over the last decade.
The DeLay-engineered double-dip 2003 redistricting in Texas is just one example, but it’s an instructive one.
The unprecedented effort to redraw Texas’s congressional districts middecade — in which DeLay and his crew enlisted the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies to track down runaway Texas legislators — was the only reason that House Republicans expanded their majority in last year’s election.
But the effort was not only an unprecedented breach of political norms going back more than a century. Criminal conduct was also at the heart of the enterprise.
Three top DeLay lieutenants are already under indictment in Texas for funneling illegal corporate contributions into the 2002 state legislative races that set the stage for the subsequent redistricting. Needless to say, it is DeLay’s own fairly obvious involvement in those illegal fundraising activities that still leaves him open to possible indictment back home. And it was to avoid the consequences of such an indictment that he importuned his House colleagues last year to change the caucus rules to allow him to remain in his post even after such an indictment.
But let’s be frank. The readers of the The Hill are mostly denizens of Capitol Hill and its nearby environs. If you’re not, you’re certainly a political junkie of some sort or another. So you know all this. Tom DeLay’s power rests on the money machine that he helped create and that he has been fine-tuning for a decade — a 21st-century Tammany Hall seated near the banks of the Potomac. Part of that is the K Street Project, the effort to graft (and I use that term advisedly) K Street into the Capitol Hill Republican machine by staffing it with loyal Republican operatives and offering a closer and closer nexus between political money and legislative action.
Jack Abramoff didn’t come out of nowhere. He may have been particularly egregious in his conduct — or, more likely, just got caught. But he’s just one example of the type — Homo bagmanus — that DeLay and his cronies have used to populate the cash-and-carry Washington he’s created. Abramoff has already roped in Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Committee on Administration. And certainly there will be more.
Go down the list of abuses: attempted bribes on the floor of the House, overseas junkets paid for by money funneled from foreign interests, extortionate demands to hire or fire employees of trade associations, money-laundering operations to circumvent state campaign-finance laws. They’re all of a piece.
Tom DeLay is part and parcel of how the House of Representatives is run today. He is the House majority. You could no more remove him than you could pull the engine out of the family car.
If that weren’t enough, DeLay has also implicated his colleagues in his own bad acts — not only by getting them to change House and caucus ethics rules to protect him but also by purging the ethics committee of those Republican members not willing to do so. In many cases, he’s even gotten the colleagues and their major corporate contributors to pony up money for his legal defense.
So Keene is right. None of this will end with DeLay, but not simply because the Democrats are eager to get back into power. Even if DeLay is booted, he’ll leave in his wake a caucus in which the levers of power are tainted by his sleaze.
Marshall is editor of talkingpointsmemo.com. His column appears in The Hill each week.