Friday, October 07, 2005


Tom DeLay's House of Shame

By Jonathan Alter

Congress has always had its share of extremists. But the DeLay era is the first time the fringe has ever been in charge.

A decade ago, I paid a call on Tom DeLay in his ornate office in the Capitol. I had heard a rumor about him that I figured could not possibly be true. The rumor was that after the GOP took control of the House that year, DeLay had begun keeping a little black book with the names of Washington lobbyists who wanted to come see him. If the lobbyists were not Republicans and contributors to his power base, they didn't get into "the people's House." DeLay not only confirmed the story, he showed me the book. His time was limited, DeLay explained with a genial smile. Why should he open his door to people who were not on the team?

Thus began what historians will regard as the single most corrupt decade in the long and colorful history of the House of Representatives. Come on, you say. How about all those years when congressmen accepted cash in the House chamber and then staggered onto the floor drunk? Yes, special interests have bought off members of Congress at least since Daniel Webster took his seat while on the payroll of a bank. And yes, Congress over the years has seen dozens of sex scandals and dozens of members brought low by financial improprieties. But never before has the leadership of the House been hijacked by a small band of extremists bent on building a ruthless shakedown machine, lining the pockets of their richest constituents and rolling back popular protections for ordinary people. These folks borrow like banana republics and spend like Tip O'Neill on speed.

I have no idea if DeLay has technically broken the law. What interests me is how this moderate, evenly divided nation came to be ruled on at least one side of Capitol Hill by a zealot. This is a man who calls the Environmental Protection Agency "the Gestapo of government" and favors repealing the Clean Air Act because "it's never been proven that air toxins are hazardous to people"; who insists repeatedly that judges on the other side of issues "need to be intimidated" and rejects the idea of a separation of church and state; who claims there are no parents trying to raise families on the minimum wage—that "fortunately, such families do not exist" (at least Newt Gingrich was intrigued by the challenges of poverty); who once said: "A woman can't take care of the family. It takes a man to provide structure." I could go on all day. Congress has always had its share of extremists. But the DeLay era is the first time the fringe has ever been in charge.

The only comparison to DeLay Co. might be the Radical Republicans of the 1860s. But the 19th-century Radical Republican agenda was to integrate and remake the South. The 21st-century Radical Republican agenda is to enact the wish list of the tobacco and gun lobbies, repeal health and safety regulations and spend billions on shameless pork-barrel projects to keep the GOP at the trough. Another analogy is to Republican Speaker Joe Cannon, who ran the House with an iron fist a century ago. But Cannon had to contend with Progressive Republicans who eventually stripped him of his power. DeLay's ruling radical conservative claque remains united, at least for now.

Comparisons with fellow Texan Sam Rayburn fall short, too. Rayburn was respected on both sides of the aisle for his rock-solid integrity. He and most other House speakers carefully balanced their support for corporate interests like the oil depletion allowance with at least some sense of the public good. And they had to share much of their power with committee chairmen. Today, seniority is much less important. Chairmen are term-limited (six years) or tossed if they displease DeLay. And this crowd views "the public interest" as strictly for liberal pantywaists.

How have they succeeded? A new book, "Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy," by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, explains how the GOP is simply better than the Democratic Party at the basic blocking and tackling of politics, including the exploitation of cultural and religious issues. The authors argue that even if DeLay goes down, the zealotry and corporate shilling will continue as long as the GOP controls the House. Consider DeLay's temporary replacement, Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt. The Washington Post reported last week that Blunt is respected by Republican members in part because he has "strong ties to the Washington lobbying community." That's a qualification for office?

The only reason the House hasn't done even more damage is that the Senate often sands down the most noxious ideas, making the bills merely bad, not disastrous. What next for the House of Shame? If DeLay's acquitted, he'll be back in power. If he's convicted, his proteges will continue his work. Reform efforts by fiscal conservatives determined to curb their borrow-and-spend colleagues are probably doomed. The only way to get rid of the termites eating away the people's House is to stamp them out at the next election.

Snave's note: I would have to take a look at the history of Congress from several different viewpoints before I could say whether or not I agree with the historical comparisons offered by the author. I would certainly agree with assertions that "the fringe is in charge". I have never been much of a fan of "winning through intimidation", so I find DeLay's strong-arm tactics particularly distasteful.

If "Blunt is respected by Republican members in part because he has 'strong ties to the Washington lobbying community'", then yes, it probably means he has the right qualifying credentials to replace DeLay... because he could be the most likely person to keep the fringe's power structure strong.

Looking at it that way, Harriet Miers probably is one of the best Supreme Court (soon to become the Extreme Court) candidates Bush could think of, because she is a personal friend and confidant. When he says she is the best candidate he could think of, he is right: he thinks of himself first, not the country. And for protecting his interests and his power structure... why, she's probably the perfect choice.

Like just about all politicians, it's all about gaining and keeping power. I wonder from time to time if a revolution might not be such a bad thing... then again, going on what I believe about human nature, we could well end up with something worse if the revolution was successful. So, we just have to mobilize voters and have the revolution at the ballot box. The ballot box? That's another soap box entirely...


Blogger Sheryl said...

Excellent post, Snave.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Damien said...

Heck since Newt led the charge of the GOP back into the house and senate it looks as though a natural point of collapse is about to be met. I would be surprised of the GOP don't endorse Delay for another run. Intersting to see how Frisk holds up against the SEC probe - hoping the cases start in earnest prior to the next mid terms.

5:09 PM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

Wow, great article. Delay is hubris personified.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

Well, Sheryl, Damien, and Marquis, I agree with at least the intent of the post, though like Snave, I have questions about the historical comparisions. That being said, he's certainly the worst Congressional party leader in my lifetime. What I find unfortunate is your apparent unwillingness to notice the glaring flaws within your own party. From the beginning of my blog, I attacked those I felt were far outside of the mainstream to the point of being a problem with the party with which I once identified and to which I still have at least ties of nostalgia. I've condemned Roy Moore repeatedly, slammed Bill O'Reilly, and given Ann Coulter and other party extremists an earful. I've logically countered arguments on the right against gay marriage and a host of other issues. I guess that, at this point, I'm an independent, though one with strong libertarian and conservative leanings, though the libertarian leanings are stronger now than any lingering conservativism.

When will any of you do the same for your party? When will you condemn Senator Byrd, Senator Kennedy, the Byzantine corruption of the Clintons, and other problems within your party? When will you demand that your party's leaders do more than simply oppose, and actually express an active vision of the future, while keeping your own extremists on a leash? Or is this just the equivalent of ranting at the darkness instead of lighting a match?

7:41 PM  
Blogger Sheryl said...


Actually, I don't like Hillary Clinton anymore and have put her down in this very blog. I used to like her, but she sold out her principles for personal gain. And Nancy Pelosi is hardly the best person to be leading the democratic party in the House. We should get rid of her and call it "House cleaning."

I also detest Joseph Lieberman. And Henry Cuellar. Yuck! Of course, one could make a good case that Cuellar's really a republican who ran as a democrat, and cheated at that. And who could forget what Zell Miller did. Some democrat he turned out to be!!!

Even then, there are Republicans I admire. Lincoln Chafee comes to mind as someone who has fought to maintain moderation in the face of fanaticism. Olympia Snowe sometimes is alright. Occassionally McCain shows his humanityl. I thought well of him for his fight against Bush on this torture issue, for example. And considering how that vote turned out, it seems a lot of his fellow Republicans agreed that Bush had lost the plot on that issue.

And some republicans are good on some issues, but not others.

But I have yet to hear anything redeeming about Tom DeLay.

12:46 AM  
Blogger Snave said...

MC, as usual you make some valid points about supporters of the Democratic party, although you would have to admit you're changing the subject! We were talking about Tom DeLay! 8-)>

Obviously, as a Democrat, I don't like to talk about skeletons in my party's closet and its myriad other problems any more than the Republicans like to talk about theirs. It is easy for someone who claims affiliation with neither party to criticize both parties. And while it may be constructive for members of a particular party to question or criticize their own, it is not easy for Democrats to do, particularly in the face of what we currently have in the White House.

Because I'm a Democrat, I will talk about the problems I see with the GOP MUCH more than the problems I see with my party. At this point in U.S. history, I view the importance of getting Republicans out of the White House as paramount, along with Democrats regaining control of the House or Senate... I don't want either party in control of all three, because I believe there need to be some checks and balances (which we do not currently have enough of, by the way!)

While I am not always enthused about the Democratic party or about being a Democrat, the party has my full support at this time because the country needs a change at the top, and regretfully, with a two-party system, that's how it works: one party defeats the other.

There are some Democrat leaders I don't like personally or who I may question due to past actions in their personal lives. Sure, Byrd and Kennedy are a couple. I can't think about Kennedy without thinking of Mary Jo Kopechne, and Byrd has his KKK history. Zell Miller and Joseph Lieberman are two more for whom I have no love lost, mostly because they seem to be far more like Republicans than Democrats. I'm with Sheryl about the type of Republicans she admires, and also that Nancy Pelosi is basically an idea whose time has come... and gone. I don't view her presence as being helpful when it comes to helping Democrats gain House seats in 2006.

With the 2006 elections just over a year away, the Democrat leadership had damned well better start articulating some policy and some party philosophy in ways that can reach the greatest number of people. You're correct MC, simply "opposing" isn't enough. Neither is sitting back and watching the GOP destroy itself... there are still millions of people out there (Bush's base) who will vote for the GOP regardless of what it does or of what dumb things its leaders say, but I believe many more Republicans are moderates. It is that group, along with independent voters, to which the Democrats need to speak first and foremost, because those moderates and independents might not be as difficult to convince that the Democrats may provide a good alternative to fundamentalism/neoconservatism.

While I find myself thinking it's wonderful to see Bush make screw-up after screw-up because it creates political gain for the Democrats, I know his continuous screwing-up is not good for the country. Soldiers die needlessly in Iraq, environmental protections get trashed, the wealthiest Americans get tax cuts, and boundaries between church and state get more blurred, the Supreme Court may soon be the Extreme Court... too many things to mention.

I love my country, and because I do, I worry about the direction it is headed. I see it being trashed by the Bush administration, so I honestly believe it is my patriotic duty to oppose Bush and most of what his party has come to represent to me in recent years.

Thus, while I will admit that some of the Democratic party leaders have their flaws, you won't find me trashing Democrats on this site. The Democratic party may not represent a white knight when it comes to rescuing the country, but right now, the country needs rescuing and it doesn't need more Republicans to rescue it, it needs the Democrats. I plan to give my party LOTS of support during the next three years, and I hope many other Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans will be doing the same.

6:16 AM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

MC- My answer is very simple. One of the main reasons the country is in such a mess is because the Democratic rank and file thought we should play fair and look at both sides of every issue. That attitude allowed the Right to paint us as weak and indicisive and cost us the last two presidential elections.

We'll clean our own house once we drive out the GOP nitwits.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

Marquis, I find that very strange that you say you'll clean house once you defeat the Republicans. As I recall, one of the things that won the Republicans Congress back in 1994 was by having a reputation for cleaning out their own ranks, while pointing out the Democrats' reluctance to do the same. Also, I find Sheryl's and Snave's distaste for Lieberman puzzling since he's one of a very few major Democrats the right-center and centrist independents can respect. Do you want to know why I like him? He's a bit of a maverick within his own party. Yes, he keeps true to the spirit of the Democratic Party, but he clearly has his own ideas and is not afraid to go against his own party when he thinks they're wrong on an issue. I can see where that may be of concern to the party faithful. I simply think that concern is misplaced, if not ultimately detrimental to your party.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Snave said...

True MC, Lieberman is something of a maverick within the Democratic party, kind of like McCain and Chaffee are within the GOP. Guys like those must be very frustrating to the GOP at times, just as Lieberman can be frustrating to the Democrats. You're correct in asserting there should be room for viewpoints representing a wide spectrum within a party. And while I wouldn't mind seeing the GOP moderates calling the shots in that party, I wouldn't necessarily want to see Lieberman calling the shots for the Democrats, because my politics are left of his.

I guess my primary distaste for Lieberman has to do with him being a pretty hawkish kind of guy. And from what I said a couple of comments ago, I should say/confess that I probably ought not to compare Lieberman to the Zellbilly because Joe isn't nearly that far to the right.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Sheryl said...

The issue with Lieberman is the percentage of his ideas that are in line with the party versus the percentage of his ideas that are in line with the republican party. I really am not sure why he considers himself a democrat. But MC, if you want to support the democratic party because we have people like Lieberman, then by all means, vote dem.

If Lieberman wants to be a democrat, then more power to him, but someone like Lincoln Chafee is more democratic in principles than Lieberman.

To be fair, I would welcome Lincoln Chafee into the democratic party if he chose to leave the republican party. Just as I welcomed Jim Jeffords to be an idependent. Jim Jeffords would make a damn good democrat, even though some of his views are conservative. I really respect him as a man of conscience, and I suppose that is why he chose to be an independent rather than a democrat because he didn't want to backstab his former party members unnecessarily when his beef was with Bush.

And John McCain would make a good independent. I'm not sure I'd want him as a democrat, but he would make a good independent. Ron Paul should probably be an independent as well.

I agree with Snave that you are derailing an important issue in terms of Tom DeLay. The only reason I went ahead and answered your question is because I don't see this as a dialogue otherwise.

The fact of the matter is the republican party does have better people it could be drawing from than the ones who are leading in Congress, and if the people who vote Republican had control of their leaders, then we would not see this extremist trend.

I mean geez, even Newt Gingrich was trashing DeLay on ethics, and he's no saint. But DeLay crossed lines that even Gingrich wouldn't cross.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

I like mavericks. I like people who aren't afraid to say to their own party leadership, "Hey, guy, you're screwing up, and I don't care what you say, I'm vocally opposing you on this issue." I like McCain. I like Lieberman. I honestly don't know much about Jeffords except he temporarily gave the Democrats a majority, or at least parity, in the Senate a few months earlier than expected since Thurmond was expected to kick the bucket at any time. I do know one thing, though: I don't like anyone who's anyone's bitch, and for that reason, I have little love lost for the Democratic or Republican Party leadership.

9:22 PM  

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