“I am innocent,” Tom DeLay declared in the frantic hours after his indictment by Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle. “I have done nothing wrong. “ It remains to be seen whether the now-former House Republican majority leader is guilty, as Earle’s indictment charges, of conspiring to direct corporate political contributions illegally to Texas state candidates. The indictment, after all, offers scant details establishing DeLay’s culpability. What’s more, the Texas law in question is arcane, and, in the realm of political money, the $190,000 DeLay and his associates allegedly misdirected is a relative pittance. But one can hardly say that Tom DeLay has “done nothing wrong.”
Throughout his Washington career, there is little wrong that DeLay hasn’t done. He has transformed the House Republican majority into an arm of corporate special interests that benefit from an unprecedented “pay to play” culture of rewards for political donations. As symbolized by his well-known chumminess with the oleaginous Jack Abramoff, he has unapologetically blurred the lines between officeholders and lobbyists, deeply integrating K Street into his party’s political and legislative strategy and treating it like a House Republican patronage machine. And DeLay, more than anyone, has been responsible for running the House of Representatives like a one-party dictatorship, both shutting out the Democratic minority (even denying them simple meeting space) and militantly smothering intraparty dissent.
Those are just the overarching themes of DeLay’s disgraceful tenure in Congress. One could type for hours without exhausting the list of particular offenses for which he should have been ostracized by now: He has allegedly threatened K Street firms that failed to hire Republican lobbyists in sufficient numbers. He was admonished last year by the House ethics committee for essentially selling access to energy-industry executives just as Congress was wrapping up a major energy bill. The ethics committee also slapped DeLay for offering to endorse the candidate son of Republican Representative Nick Smith in exchange for Smith’s vote in favor of a GOP Medicare bill. Then the ethics committee rebuked him a third time for his wildly inappropriate enlistment of the Federal Aviation Administration to hunt for a group of awol Texas legislators back in 2003.
Which brings us back to Earle’s indictment. Those Texas lawmakers DeLay was hunting had taken flight to inhibit a Machiavellian GOP-led vote to redraw Texas’s congressional districts. The plan, which eventually passed, led to the defeat of four incumbent House Democrats at the hands of Republicans in 2004—and it was all masterminded by DeLay. It had long been customary for parties to redraw congressional boundaries only after the once-a-decade U.S. census. But, under DeLay’s leadership, Texas Republicans determined that they could boost their numbers in the state legislature and ram through a new state congressional map mid-decade. That’s why DeLay worked so hard in 2001 and 2002 to elect a new crop of Republicans to the Texas legislature. Earle’s indictment contends that, during that election, a DeLay political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, essentially laundered contributions from corporations (which, under Texas law, may not fund state political races) through a national Republican committee and on to several GOP legislative candidates. It was classic DeLay: hubristic, hyper-partisan, and corporate- funded.
Of course, even DeLay himself is merely a cog in a Washington Republican machine that has abandoned morality in its fanatical pursuit of power. Beyond rooting for a jury in Travis County, Texas, to return a guilty verdict in the months ahead, Democrats need to make clear to the public that his indictment represents a mere fraction of the Republican Congress’s corruption. The House ethics committee, for instance, must continue to investigate Abramoff’s sleazy lobbying, which envelops several other GOP congressmen and reveals the disgusting influence K Street lobbyists enjoy over federal lawmaking. Within the panoply of DeLay’s countless other ethical (and potentially legal) offenses, Earle’s indictment is relatively trivial. But a conviction would be a fitting end for the career of a mean-spirited, intellectually primitive, and ethically bankrupt man. And, with any luck, it could be the beginning of a desperately needed fumigation of Capitol Hill. That much DeLay, a former exterminator, would understand.
This article originally ran in the October 10, 2005 issue of the magazine.