After DeLay, Enforcers-to-Be
Who will be the next Hammer?
Every generation has one: the tough-as-nails leader with the pugnacity to demand the discipline, money or power to control Congress. With Tom DeLay's dramatic rise and fall, the job's now open.
However unseemly to the general public, these leaders are perennially needed on Capitol Hill, the enforcers who take the most successful leadership techniques, unsavory or not, and push them to new and often controversial heights. They are members such as Joe Cannon, the Illinois Republican whose penchant for punishing wayward members in the early 1900s earned him the nickname "Czar Cannon" and, more recently, Tony Coelho, the California Democrat who in the 1980s invented many of the pay-to-play rules that have come to dominate the capital's political culture.
"Power will end up corrupting if you're not careful, and that's the problem here," Coelho said in an interview last week. "The question is: How do you control that power?"
Today there's no obvious heir apparent ready to embrace DeLay's trademark style of strict party discipline, no-holds-barred politics and carrot-and-stick handling of members, but there are candidates for the title already eagerly co-opting parts of his modus operandi. Leading the list is an unlikely contender: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California liberal and harsh DeLay critic.
Pelosi certainly lacks the sharp edge and ethical freight that made DeLay so problematic, but she has systematically adopted many of the bare-knuckle tactics he perfected while consolidating power in Congress. Like DeLay, Pelosi has been cracking down on members who vote against the Democratic leadership on key legislation, including subtle and not-so-subtle threats that apostates could lose positions of influence. Also like DeLay, she has imposed strict fundraising quotas for members to deliver for the party -- and sought to shame or pressure those who failed to meet them.
Pelosi likes to boast that under her watch the party has become more unified than at any time since Speaker Sam Rayburn's reign almost a half-century ago.
Fellow Democrats saw glimpses of her Hammeresque qualities during the 2005 vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Like DeLay on the other side of the aisle, Pelosi played hardball with members, warning in closed-door meetings about the dangers of crossing her leadership team, according to Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), one of 15 Democrats who did. The private tongue lashings "exerted a tremendous amount of pressure," Moran said. "All of us felt it."
Personality-wise, Moran said, Pelosi is no DeLay. But, he added, "people know where she stands and what she wants, and she'll get it."
Pelosi has adopted one DeLay technique in particular: using committee assignments as part of a reward and punishment system. Starting in the mid-1990s, DeLay and other GOP leaders made it increasingly clear that chairmanships and committee assignments would no longer be determined by seniority alone. Instead, there would be a loyalty litmus test applied to such decisions. In one instance that rankled many of her colleagues, Pelosi threatened to pull Rep. Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) off his prime seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee after he voted for CAFTA and then missed a key vote on a GOP spending bill. She never carried out her threat, however.
And many Democrats told us privately that they believe Pelosi lacks precisely that killer instinct to place her in the tradition of DeLay or Cannon: She is not seen as menacing enough to scare members into action.
One person who might be is Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the fiercely partisan leader of the party's election efforts. Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton White House who was once an aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that he now heads, is considered by many members to be a good bet to run for one of the party's top leadership jobs in the future. As his predecessor Coelho at the DCCC showed, the campaign job is a springboard members can use to amass chits with their colleagues and influence among Washington's most powerful interests.
Like DeLay and Pelosi, Emanuel has bought into the concept of strict party loyalty and fundraising quotas for members. Unlike Pelosi, he has a sharp tongue and edge -- and isn't afraid to use either. Known as Rahm-bo in the Clinton White House for his political commando style, Emanuel back in his Hill staffer days once sent a dead fish to a pollster who angered him. "It's been awful working with you," said the accompanying note.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) also fits parts of the enforcer profile. As House minority whip, he has emulated efforts by DeLay to cement closer ties with K Street lobbyists, who under Republican rule have become a virtual fourth branch of government. DeLay mastered a particularly blatant strategy of pressuring companies to hire Republican lobbyists and then pressuring those same lobbyists to give money to Republican candidates. Given the unfolding scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the possibility that Congress may pass stiffer lobbying laws in response, Hoyer is unlikely to attempt a direct copy of the DeLay model. But if Democrats win back the House, many members expect leaders such as Hoyer to do what DeLay did: make it clear to the K Street crowd that this is no longer a one-party town.
Republicans have now institutionalized the DeLay rules of politics, making for a congressional system that favors centralized leadership. Six-year term limits on committee chairmen, which Republicans instituted in the mid-1990s as DeLay was consolidating his position, prevent those members from building lasting power bases and therefore put more control in the hands of the oligarchy that controls the party from their leadership offices.
House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (N.Y.), who decided to retire this year in part because he must relinquish his panel's gavel next year, said committee leaders frequently discuss how they wish they had more power. "Really, what term limits has done is to help to concentrate the power in the hands of the leadership," Boehlert said. "We go to the weekly meetings with the leadership and it's top down."
The most logical DeLay successor among Republicans would be Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), a DeLay protégé who has told friends he would still like to run for speaker one day. He holds DeLay's old job and emulates many of his money-for-access ways, including making lobbyists a key part of the governing paradigm.
But Blunt lost to Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio) in the race to succeed DeLay as majority leader and lacks the stature to muscle members. A more likely scenario is that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) would retire sometime after the November election and a new DeLay-like figure would emerge in the post-Hastert leadership struggles.
One candidate: Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and another DeLay protégé. Reynolds, an amiable politician who was nonetheless schooled in the tough ways of New York politics, has repeatedly praised DeLay in public for working relentlessly to expand the Republican majority.
Illinois Republican Robert Michel, who served for 14 years as House minority leader before Republicans won the House in 1994, offered words of warning to any members aspiring to become a modern-day Joe Cannon.
"You can only go so far with that, and then it wears thin," he said in an interview last week. "I just don't think you can make this stick for a long period with a backlash and repercussions."
In the heady days of their revolution, many Republicans privately derided Michel as an accommodationist. But history reinforces his message. Cannon's combative style provoked members to strip much of his power in 1910. Coelho resigned in 1989 after ethical questions were raised, though no charges were filed, about an unusual $100,000 junk bond investment he had made. In the end, the Hammer loses the gavel.
Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin are national reporters for The Washington Post. Eilperin is the author of "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives" (Rowman & Littlefield).