After Tom DeLay

Sunday, January 8, 2006

TEXAS REPUBLICAN Tom DeLay's decision yesterday to permanently relinquish the majority leader's post was necessary but not sufficient for the health of the House majority he dominated for so long.

It's necessary because, notwithstanding his assertion yesterday that "I have always acted in an ethical manner," Mr. DeLay is an ethical recidivist unfit to lead. If the repeated admonishments of the House ethics committee weren't enough to convince his colleagues, consider some of the latest disclosures: The Post's R. Jeffrey Smith reported on a DeLay-linked group, the U.S. Family Network, that appears to have secretly received $1 million from Russian oil and gas executives seeking to induce Mr. DeLay to support a loan bailout for Russia. Foreign companies and individuals aren't permitted to make campaign contributions; such back-door influence buying is especially pernicious.

In addition, according to the guilty plea entered by Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist arranged for payments totaling $50,000 to the wife of "Staffer A" -- identified as Tony C. Rudy, Mr. DeLay's former deputy chief of staff -- in exchange for Mr. Rudy's help in defeating an Internet gambling bill. The stench surrounding Mr. DeLay had been growing more pungent daily; his decision had the air of inevitability.

But House Republicans need not only to shed Mr. DeLay; they also need to change the way their party has operated under his leadership and that of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert

(R-Ill.) and others. For a start, Congress should strengthen the rules governing lobbying, requiring fuller disclosure of the ties between lawmakers and lobbyists. Mr. DeLay did all he could to thicken those bonds, with his K Street project to install more Republicans in key lobbying jobs and his bullying lists of how much lobbyists were giving to each side. More sunlight -- disclosure of the amounts of money steered to lawmakers, the gifts lavished on members and staff -- would have gone a long way to disinfect Mr. Abramoff and to diminish the impact of Mr. DeLay's political hammer.

As Mr. DeLay's golf outings and other excursions demonstrated, the prohibition on travel paid for by an individual lobbyist makes little sense when corporations and other groups that lobby Congress can foot the bill and send their lobbyists along for the ride. The rules about privately funded travel should be tightened to bar lawmakers and staff from accepting reimbursement for trips underwritten, directly or indirectly, by entities that engage in lobbying.

Nor should these changes be limited to the House; the systemic vulnerabilities exploited by Mr. Abramoff are equally evident in the Senate. It is time to consider whether, in this age of partisan division, the existing congressional ethics process can be made to work or whether a different model is required.

Further, earmarks inserted in the dead of night to fund lawmakers' pet projects -- and secure their votes for measures -- are an invitation to abuse. So is, in violation of House rules, unveiling mammoth bills just hours before a scheduled vote. So, too, is the all-too-routine habit of making significant changes to legislation after it emerges from committee and then eliminating, or drastically limiting, lawmakers' ability to offer amendments on the floor. Representative democracy can't function when these practices prevail.

And there is a more fundamental question that the Abramoff mess, and the DeLay departure, ought to prompt House leaders to ask themselves -- or that voters may ask, and answer, for them: What is the purpose of the Republican majority? Is it simply, as some of the leadership's behavior would suggest, to amass, cement and retain power by whatever means necessary? Or, as Republicans claimed when they came to power a decade ago, do they stand for something: a different method of doing business, a belief in limited government, commitment to spending restraint? If there is a role for the Republican machine other than self-perpetuation, it's awfully hard to discern right now. That, as much as anything, ought to be what the upcoming leadership elections are about.

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