DeLay's Influence Transcends His Title

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 3, 2005

For the indefinite future, Washington will remain Tom DeLay's capital. Dislodged by a criminal indictment last week from his post as House majority leader, DeLay in his decade of steering the Republican caucus dramatically -- and in many cases inalterably -- changed how power is amassed and used on Capitol Hill and well beyond.

Proteges of the wounded Texan still hold virtually every position of influence in the House, including the office of speaker. DeLay's former staff members are securely in the lobbying offices for many of the largest corporations and business advocacy groups.

But even more than people, DeLay's lasting influence is an ethos. He stood for a view of Washington as a battlefield on which two sides struggle relentlessly, moderates and voices of compromise are pushed to the margins, and the winners presume they have earned the right to punish dissenters and reward their own side with financial and policy favors.

His take-no-prisoners style of fundraising -- in which the classic unstated bargain of access for contributions is made explicitly and without apology -- has been adopted by both parties in Congress, according to lawmakers, lobbyists and congressional scholars. Democrats, likewise, increasingly are trying to emulate DeLay-perfected methods for enforcing caucus discipline -- rewarding lawmakers who follow the dictums of party leaders and seeking retribution against those who do not.

Most of all, DeLay stood for a blurring of the line between lawmakers and lobbyists so that lobbyists are now considered partners of politicians and not merely pleaders -- especially if they once worked for Republicans on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers-turned-corporate lobbyists such as Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) and aides such as Ed Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff, remain among the most influential figures on Capitol Hill -- often more involved than lawmakers in writing policy and plotting political strategy.

For a vivid sign of how what was once considered controversial has gone mainstream, consider the K Street Project. That was the name for a DeLay-inspired campaign -- for which he was chastised by the House ethics committee -- to demand that lobbying firms seeking access hire loyal Republicans. Rather than going underground, the project has gone unabashedly public, with a Web site, http://www.kstreetproject.com/ , providing news about the latest lobbying vacancies.

"People who have worked for Mr. DeLay become, like other senior Republican staffers, members in good standing of a club and are accepted back by many members [of Congress] and staffers," said Andrew M. Shore, chief of staff of the House Republican Conference. "The idea is that we are a team. What's good for one is good for all; anything to cultivate that team mentality is seen in a positive light."

Usually, staffers-turned-lobbyists lose their cachet when their former bosses retire or lose their jobs. But the DeLay fraternity -- so large that it is called DeLay Inc. -- does not look as if it will suffer the same fate. "Has the value of these people diminished? I would say no," Shore said. "As they transition into the private sector, the benefits are shared by the [Republican] conference. There's a symbiosis between the former staffers and many members of the conference."

None of the tactics used so effectively by DeLay and his allies were invented by them. The Texan's innovation was to systematically institutionalize them within the GOP. It's possible his zeal in these methods could ultimately bring about his downfall.

Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle won a grand jury indictment of DeLay on a charge of conspiring to illegally evade fundraising restrictions. DeLay, still in Congress, has vowed to return to his leadership post after clearing his name at trial -- though his future is shadowed by a tall stack of other legal and political problems. But scholars say his methods are imprinted on Washington like a tattoo. "Even if Boss DeLay leaves, his legacy stays," said James A. Thurber, director of congressional studies at American University.

Part of the reason for this is that DeLay's temporary replacement, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is a DeLay protege whose rapid rise was spawned by the Texas Republican. So were the careers of almost everyone else in the House Republican leadership, including Rep. Eric I. Cantor of Virginia and Thomas M. Reynolds of New York. They are all social conservatives who support such pro-business policies as deregulation and tax cuts.

The DeLay network is just as formidable in downtown Washington. Former DeLay aides Buckham, Tony Rudy and Karl Gallant form the core of one of Washington's largest and fastest-growing lobbying firms, Alexander Strategy Group. Susan Hirschmann, a former DeLay chief of staff, is a senior member of Williams & Jensen, another major lobbying firm. Congressional aides said that these and other DeLay alumni are part of their "team" and will be welcome in their offices no matter what happens to their old boss.

Speaking of Hirschmann, Mike Stokke, deputy chief of staff to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said, "Having DeLay in her background is a strength; having worked for Tom brings credibility."

There has been no sign that DeLay personally has been active in the K Street Project since he was admonished by the House ethics committee for pressuring the Electronics Industries Alliance to hire a Republican as its president seven years ago. Nonetheless, the project is still going strong; other lawmakers and lobbyists have taken up the cause. Job listings on K Street are still distributed in regularly scheduled meetings held by other GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.). Lobbying executives report that former Republican aides and lawmakers have telephoned them to suggest that their top openings should be filled with loyalists. The K Street Project Web site is run by well-connected conservative Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

In the House, DeLay enhanced the leadership's role by ending the practice of automatically promoting the most senior lawmakers to committee chairmanships and, instead, choosing loyalists to fill the powerful slots. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) was booted from the chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee at the beginning of the current Congress because he repeatedly bucked DeLay and other GOP leaders on key votes. DeLay also arranged to have the chairmen elected by the committees themselves, whose members he also selected and was thus better able to control.

The same technique is now used in the Senate by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who won the authority to select committee members after the 2004 elections increased his majority to 55 seats. "There is only one reason for that change, and it is to punish people," Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) told the newspaper Roll Call in November.

Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), an outspoken DeLay critic, has started to crack down on her own members with DeLay-like tactics. After this summer's vote on free trade with Central American nations -- a plan that several House Democrats supported despite her strong objections -- Pelosi summoned Democratic lawmakers to a private meeting and threatened to take away their committee assignments if they did not start voting with party leaders, according to participants.

DeLay's fundraising focus has also permeated Washington. Over the years, DeLay has raised tens of millions of dollars for Republicans through nearly a dozen fundraising entities. Today, no leader of either party or lawmaker with leadership ambitions would even consider not forming at least two such fundraising committees. "DeLay set a new benchmark for fundraising and that's not going to go away," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

DeLay established as common practice the requirement that House GOP incumbents with safe seats collect at least some money for the party as a whole. Chairmen of committees were particularly on the line to raise large sums, Republican aides said. Unless they paid up, their chairmanships were in danger.

In late June, Pelosi adopted a similar tack. She sent a letter warning that Democratic lawmakers who did not raise money for the House campaign committee would be deprived of everything from financial resources to telephone access. "If you are on the team, you have to" pay up, a House Democratic aide said.

Meanwhile, anyone looking for signs of the ongoing influence of DeLay Inc. will find another one today. It's the starting date for Time Warner Inc.'s new vice president for global public policy. The new executive is Tim Berry, former chief of staff to Tom DeLay.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company