The Ethical Albatross
Monday's stunning reversal by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugarland, and the Republicans in Congress on the so-called DeLay Rule caught all by surprise, including those of us in the midst of the effort to hold politicians accountable for these types of actions.
But it shouldn't have. There are three reasons why DeLay caved on the provision, which was enacted by the House Republican conference back in mid-November and was designed to protect him if he gets indicted for his role in the on-going investigation into corporate fund-raising in Texas politics: constituent anger; a measurable rebellion among House members that emboldened House Democrats; and the growing sense that DeLay is becoming politically radioactive.
But first some background. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been conducting an investigation into possibly illegal corporate campaign fund-raising in the 2002 elections by a DeLay-created political action committee known as TRMPAC. Eight corporations and three individuals have already been indicted by a grand jury for their role. All three individuals have strong ties to DeLay, making DeLay's potential indictment a matter of great speculation.
Already two of the eight corporations, including Sears Roebuck & Co., have recently turned state's witness.
The corporate fund-raising led to a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature that was willing and eager to pass DeLay's unprecedented plan to re-redistrict congressional lines in Texas, skewing them toward electing more GOP members of Congress. And that is what happened. DeLay returned to Congress after the November elections with five extra GOP members from Texas.
These new House members meant an expanded GOP majority in Congress. That majority expressed its immediate gratitude toward DeLay by rewriting its rules in a secret, Republicans-only vote, to allow members of party leadership to maintain their positions even if indicted. The rule quickly was named in honor of its main beneficiary, and that, in part, became its undoing.
Faced with citizen pressure from all over the country, DeLay blinked. The first reason he did was that members of Congress were hearing from constituents that they didn't like the DeLay Rule. One member of Congress, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., summed it up in two words: Constituents reacted.
Fueled by bloggers, enterprising journalists and public interest groups, thousands of constituents called members of Congress throughout November and December to ask where they stood on the DeLay Rule vote. The issue wasn't going away.
The second reason DeLay & Co. backtracked was that they simply didn't have the votes to win on the floor of the House. While the DeLay Rule only applied to Republicans, Democrats smelled an opportunity and were preparing a straight up-or-down vote on whether House rules would allow any member of Congress to maintain a position in leadership after being indicted. That vote was to have happened Tuesday, the day after DeLay proposed revoking his rule.
I'm convinced that the Democrats wouldn't have pushed for this vote if it weren't for the prospects of winning. A blog I run, the Daily DeLay, tracked responses from members of Congress from constituents' inquiries and news reports and built the only comprehensive and public record of where members stood on the matter. In the end, 23 Republican members of Congress went on record as having voted against the DeLay Rule and 10 to 12 more said they missed the vote but would have opposed it if they were there, or were given another chance. Outgoing House Ethics Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., issued a timely statement saying he was siding with the Democrats. The potential of cleaving off 20-30 Republicans emboldened the Democratic minority, which pressed to take the issue to the floor. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, DeLay retreated in defeat.
Lastly, DeLay's capitulation in the face of pressure signals his increasingly negative public image, and the rising wariness moderate Republicans and those in competitive districts have about being too closely associated with him. In short, in the past DeLay's ability to raise big money was an unqualified plus. Now it is becoming more of an ethical albatross. In the words of Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., "I feel like we have just taken a shower."
I, for one, am not sure just a shower is needed. Members of Congress leave office on their own accord, or they are forced out by events or voters. With corruption and ethical scandals swirling around DeLay and all he touches, he received just 55 percent of the vote in his district, his lowest total ever. It is just a matter of time before we find out which end is in store for Tom DeLay and his brand of big money politics.