Seat on Approps panel raises new questions

In a sign of just how far Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has fallen, the once-powerful, hard-charging GOP leader is facing new questions over whether he could win the seat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) left vacant.

In a sign of just how far Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has fallen, the once-powerful, hard-charging GOP leader is facing new questions over whether he could win the seat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) left vacant.

While DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden said his boss has not expressed an interest in obtaining a seat on any particular subcommittee on the spending panel, several lawmakers seeking an Appropriations assignment have expressed interest in the coveted Defense Subcommittee.

Some GOP lawmakers believe the seat is DeLay’s for the taking, but watchdog groups are already howling about the ramifications of handing the seat, which Cunningham used to accept bribes and personally enrich himself, to DeLay, who is a target of a Justice Department investigation into illegal influence peddling.

DeLay also has been indicted on charges that he laundered money in a scheme to circumvent Texas election law; he will likely face trial this year.

Cunningham pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and conspiracy late last year after admitting that he accepted bribes from several defense contractors.

The day DeLay announced he would not try to retain his claim to the post of majority leader, he noted that he would reclaim his seat on the Appropriations Committee. He took a leave of absence from the committee in 2003 after he became majority leader.

House GOP leaders cannot deny him a seat on the panel, but they could decide whether, considering the scandal, to move him into a less high-profile assignment than the one Cunningham left.

If Republicans maintain the majority this November, DeLay could become the subcommittee chairman for the panel that oversees NASA, a major employer in his district, or for the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee. But Republicans won’t have to make that decision until early 2007, and right now there are more immediate concerns.

At a time when the GOP leadership is considering lobbying and ethics reform, putting the architect of the K Street Project on a committee that doles out defense contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars should raise concerns, said several government watchdogs.

In terms of committee assignments, it is up to Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) to decide on which panel DeLay will sit. “At this point, no decision has been made,” said Lewis spokesman Jim Specht.

Nevertheless, anytime there is an opening on the Defense Subcommittee a “complete reassessment” takes place of those seeking the spot, according to a GOP source close to Lewis.

“In a historical context, this subcommittee is the most sought-after subcommittee and therefore there is always a certain amount of reassessment of whom has sought out that subcommittee and there is no automatic assignment,” the source said. “Traditionally it is a decision that Lewis would make, but leadership will have an input into it.”

At this point, no decisions have been made, according to a leadership aide. “They are working through it,” the aide said.

Madden said that no further discussion has taken place about DeLay’s assignment other than the congressman’s statement that he wants to reclaim his seat on the committee.

“Chairman Lewis makes the decision. [DeLay] has not expressed a preference,” Madden added.

Nevertheless, several lawmakers who had already started aggressively pursuing plum assignment last year now are stepping aside to make room for DeLay.

“I am sure that [DeLay] will claim the [Defense] seat,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) told The Hill. Before DeLay announced his intention to reclaim his seat on the spending panel, Calvert had Lewis’s backing to replace Cunningham.

“I am confident with his experience he’ll get the seat,” Calvert said about DeLay, adding that he hopes he’ll win the next open seat on the spending panel.

“There is no reason for me to oppose” DeLay if he wants to take the defense appropriations seat, Calvert said.

Another contender for the position, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), said he is happy to wait for his turn on the panel.

“I knew from the beginning that he had an option and could take the seat, and there is no disappointment on my part,” Wilson said. “I want the best for Tom DeLay. I think it is very good for his district.”

Despite the lawmakers’ willingness to accommodate DeLay, several ethics watchdogs said that assigning the embattled DeLay to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee should raise a red flag.

Watchdog organizations and others are going to watch DeLay closely, said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

“You have someone who has really worked K Street, and here he is now on a committee that has access to a lot of money and government contracts and controls a lot of what industry lobbyists want,” Noble said. “He really opens up the spigots for lobbyists because of the jurisdiction of the committee.”

But one lobbyist admits some members of the K Street community are already hesitant to work with DeLay.

“He is toxic,” said one defense-industry lobbyist. “He’ll have a lot of free time on his hands,” at least at the beginning of his assignment.

With Congress pushing for more transparency in lobbying activities, many corporations may not want to be seen dealing with DeLay, the lobbyist said, adding however that DeLay would rehabilitate himself quickly.

Other lobbyists said that they would not be wary of working with DeLay and that they would treat him just like any other member of the subcommittee.

“We have our own code of conduct,” one lobbyist said. “Whether or not his legal issues are sorted out, it should not play a role.”