By Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 9, 2006
The Tom DeLay era is ending much as it began. An entrenched majority, battered by ethical scandals involving its top leaders, is running what many see as a politically polarized and profligate House of Representatives.
What is most remarkable, according to more than a dozen GOP lawmakers and aides, is that it took a little more than a decade for DeLay and House Republicans to succumb to many practices they railed against in the 1990s. From stifling congressional dissent to the raw use of power, they say, Republicans have become like the Democratic barons they ousted in 1994.
Former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said that former majority leader DeLay (R-Tex.) was largely to blame for leading Republicans away from their core values. "DeLay, as much as anybody, was responsible for putting the party on the wrong track," Armey said last week. "He always wanted his place in the sun."
Yet many others said the problem was much bigger -- and more complicated -- than the excesses of DeLay. They said it was a general sense of hubris and self-preservation that prompted GOP leaders to gradually abandon the tenets of the 1994 revolution: smaller government, accountability, and a new and cleaner way of doing business in Washington.
"It is a little like a reformed alcoholic taking little drinks -- pretty soon, you have a real problem on your hands," said John S. Czwartacki, who served as a key communications strategist for House Republicans in the 1990s. Czwartacki was talking about the Republicans' embrace of big government spending in particular, but others said the idea applies to the undoing of the entire revolution.
DeLay's career tracks the rise and fall of the Republican Revolution. He was a little-known conservative backbencher in the early 1990s agitating for change. And he was part of a broader movement led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who sought to take down not only the Democratic Party but also the more moderate and compromise-minded leadership led by Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
The parallels between the Democrats that DeLay and Gingrich abhorred 12 years ago and the Republicans of today are striking. In 1994, Democrats who had been the majority for more than four decades were heavily favored to remain so. But the public was discontent with their performance. Polls then showed that about one in three Americans approved of the Democratic-controlled Congress; polls today show that about one in three respondents approve of the Republican-control Congress.
Democrats were increasingly perceived by the public as corrupt and unethical. Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) had become the first man in that office to resign because of ethics charges, while then-Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who pioneered many of the money-for-access techniques DeLay would later adopt, had stepped aside after his financial dealings came under scrutiny. Then the House Bank scandal erupted, and reports that members had routinely kited checks served as a symbol of Democratic abuse.
DeLay, Gingrich and other conservatives mounted a national campaign based on a promise to end corruption and enact a new "Contract With America," which promised institutional restructuring, tax cuts and a reduction in government red tape.
After the Republicans toppled the Democrats that fall by picking up 52 seats in the House, they promised big changes -- and often delivered. With Gingrich as speaker, Armey as majority leader and DeLay as whip, the Republicans instituted a series of reforms aimed at curbing some of the Democrats' worst excesses. They applied federal workplace laws to Congress, so lawmakers had to comply with the same rules as other federal employers, and eliminated proxy voting so members had to actually show up and vote when committees were in session.
GOP leaders abolished bastions of patronage, such as the House mailroom, and eliminated perks including daily ice delivery to House offices. These changes, along with decisions to eliminate 621 committee staff jobs, saved taxpayers $50 million in 1995, according to the House Oversight Committee. The Republicans cut taxes, eliminated many regulatory restrictions on business and took aim -- unsuccessfully -- at eliminating the Departments of Education and Commerce.
But as the Republicans became more entrenched and accustomed to their position of power, leaders shifted their emphasis from reforming government to consolidating their power and self-preservation. "I do think for both parties -- and it has happened for Republicans now -- there is a risk of majority fatigue where you run out of new ideas," said Ari Fleischer, who worked in Congress in the 1990s before becoming White House spokesman. "The other risk is people's zest for reform yields to their desire to maintain power."
Gingrich said the party became too preoccupied with creating and maintaining safe GOP districts as part of an effort to cement a lasting majority. Gingrich, who originally championed the idea, said he now thinks the tactic has had the effect of undermining democracy and distancing House members from their roots.
Democrats "get to rip off the public in the states where they control and protect their incumbents, and we get to rip off the public in the states we control and protect our incumbents, so the public gets ripped off in both circumstances," Gingrich said. "In the long run, there's a downward spiral of isolation."
During their decades in the minority, Republicans lambasted Democrats for excluding them from decision-making in drafting major legislation and denying them the opportunity to amend bills on the floor using arcane House rules.
After having vowed to eliminate the "closed rules" Democrats used to quash GOP ideas, Republicans used the same tactics to stifle debate. During the past Congress -- the 108th -- only 22 percent of legislation was considered with an open rule allowing the minority to offer amendments from the floor, compared with 30 percent under the Democrats' 103rd Congress. When Democrats offered 29 amendments to a medical malpractice bill last Congress, GOP leaders blocked all of them from coming to a vote.
"Here we are fighting for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have more and more closed rules here," Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) said. "We don't want democracy to flourish on the floor of the House of Representatives."
DeLay and others also grew increasingly focused on campaign fundraising, especially how much others were raising for the party and fellow members. They abolished the seniority system that controlled chairmanships and committee assignments, and replaced it with ideological and financial litmus tests. Those who raised the most money for the party often had the best chance of snaring a top committee assignment.
DeLay "had a tremendous influence making [money] a consideration, and once you have adopted those criteria, other members take note and say 'Gosh, I better do whatever it takes to get the nod for the job,' " Michel said.
The Republicans built a powerful legislative machine that rarely faltered. House Republicans were highly effective at passing legislation, especially tax cuts and measures benefiting businesses. The GOP leaders rarely lost floor votes, and since President Bush took office in 2001, they have shaped and pushed the Republican agenda. But along the way, the core conservative principle of shrinking the size of government was jettisoned, according to some Republican members. During the past six years alone, government spending has increased by more than 25 percent under their watch.
Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) said the party has compromised away its commitment to smaller government. "The moderates went along with us on policy as long as we gave them more money at the end of the year," Souder said. "We got addicted to spending." Souder, who first won office in 1994, said that it is no longer clear what the party stands for.
"This is a campaign where we're each fighting on our own, hoping we can survive with a bare majority," Souder said. "Even if we had a unified vision, I don't know exactly what our vision would be."
Of all of the examples of backsliding, it is the ethical ones that Republicans fear could hurt them most in the fall election. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) recently resigned after pleading guilty to taking bribes. Last week, DeLay announced he will resign from Congress this spring, just as the investigation of his former top aides in money-for-favors scandals is heating up. Many members said they expect at least one more GOP member to be indicted this year. A new AP poll shows 60 percent of Republicans now disapprove of the Republican Congress.
"If it's about your power, you lose," Armey said, quoting one of his own favorite axioms. "If it's about you, you lose."