DeLay Will Go; Damage Could Remain

When House leader leaves, GOP will need to remedy institutional abuses he fostered or face political ignominy.

The media feeding frenzy surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, reminiscent of previous episodes that presaged the downfall of Speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, appears to be following a familiar script.

A strong, aggressive and effective party leader beset by charges of ethical impropriety lashes out at what he claims are trumped-up partisan attacks by a desperate opposition, is initially fortified by strong support within his party caucus and from aligned interest groups, but eventually succumbs to defections from his party colleagues in Congress. The colleagues fear he has become a serious electoral liability.

If past is prologue, DeLay will be forced to step down from his leadership position well before the 2006 midterm elections. If he surprisingly remains as majority leader during this entire Congress and wins re-election in his Texas district, he will almost certainly not be re-elected to the leadership. The speakership is not in the cards for DeLay.

What lessons are we to draw from DeLay’s impending fall? Some argue it is the latest eruption in a bitter partisan war, one in which ethics charges become merely another weapon to fire indiscriminately at one’s opponents. But that argument is belied by the three admonishments of DeLay approved unanimously by a bipartisan House ethics panel last year.

Whether DeLay broke any laws (for example, by steering illegal corporate contributions into Texas state legislative elections) or violated House rules (by knowingly accepting travel expenses from a lobbyist) is uncertain. These matters will be investigated by the appropriate authorities and eventually resolved.

What is clear is that he has allowed his fervently held ideological views and capacious partisan ambitions to trump stewardship of the institution of Congress, the constitutional separation of powers and the integrity of our democratic republic.

It is in this larger sense, not the exploitation of public office for private gain or the technical violation of ethics rules, that DeLay has dishonored his congressional leadership position and damaged the American political system.

Congress, the first branch of government and the critical forum for representation and deliberation, has been diminished in recent years by the triumph of party and ideology over institution. Together with Speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay has largely dispensed with regular order in the House – marginalizing the opposition party, diminishing the role of committees, banishing informed debate and amendment on the floor, and using brass-knuckle methods to ensure party unity.

The evisceration of the House Ethics Committee at the beginning of this year is only the latest manifestation of a willingness to bend the means to achieve the desired ends.

DeLay also has shown little concern for maintaining the appropriate place for Congress in the constitutional separation of powers. Policy agreement with President George W. Bush dictated a supine Congress, one not disposed to scrub the president’s proposals, to engage in serious oversight of the executive branch, or to insist on the legislature’s right to timely and accurate information.

On the other hand, disagreement with the decisions regarding Terri Schiavo made by countless local, state and federal courts led to reckless charges and threats to an independent judiciary. Again, we see an embrace of the view that the ends justify the means.

Two other highlights of DeLay’s record in the congressional leadership – in this case threatening the integrity and legitimacy of the political system – follow a similar pattern. Violating a century-long norm of one redistricting plan a decade, DeLay orchestrated a brazenly successful partisan gerrymander of Texas congressional districts in 2003. His fund-raising activities in the 2002 campaign to win control of the Texas statehouse, a victory that provided the political muscle to redraw the court-imposed lines, are the focus of continuing investigation. But what is most offensive to the political order was the relish with which he bent normal procedures to protect the narrow House Republican majority.

Much the same can be said of his infamous K Street Project. DeLay is certainly not the first congressional party leader to lay a heavy hand on Washington lobbyists. But the zeal with which he demanded that business groups and trade associations contribute only to Republican candidates and hire only Republicans (preferably his former staffers) as lobbyists has earned him a special place in the pantheon of politicians steering the “pay-to-play” game of Washington policy making.

Sooner or later, Tom DeLay will pass from the scene, pushed by his worried Republican colleagues. But will those fellow Republicans recognize these larger institutional abuses and move to remedy them before it is too late to save the Republicans from political ignominy?