By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said goodbye to Congress yesterday in typical fighting form, delivering a pugnacious defense of the iron-fisted partisanship that defined his decade in power.
"Given the chance to do it all again, there's only one thing I'd change," DeLay said in a defiant retirement speech on the House floor. "I'd fight even harder."
Despite his indictment on campaign money-laundering charges in Texas and the expanding investigation of his office's involvement in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, DeLay said his farewells in a House chamber that must have resembled his fondest dreams: crammed on the Republican side, virtually empty on the Democratic side. The one-time pest exterminator from the Houston suburbs declared that he has "few regrets, no doubts," and assured his colleagues that he always served "honorably and honestly."
DeLay suggested that pundits who complain about "the divisive partisan rancor that supposedly weakens our democracy" are merely nostalgic for the days when most Republicans meekly accepted minority status. DeLay was never one of those Republicans.
"The common lament over the recent rise in political partisanship is often nothing more than a veiled complaint about the recent rise of political conservatism," DeLay said.
It may not be clear until the battle for control of the House is decided in November whether yesterday marked the end of a remarkable political era, or just the end of a remarkable political career. DeLay was one of the architects of the Republican revolution that seized control of Congress in 1994, and as GOP whip and then majority leader he was the architect of the money and power machine that helped Republicans keep control.
The man known on Capitol Hill as "the Hammer" earned his nickname every day. He converted the K Street lobbying community into a virtual subsidiary of the GOP, and enforced discipline in his caucus through an extraordinary combination of political and financial carrots and sticks.
DeLay ultimately outlasted his fellow revolutionary leaders, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whom he once tried to depose, and former majority leader Richard K. Armey, a fellow Texan. And the current House leadership -- including Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a former lieutenant -- is dominated by DeLay disciples. But though DeLay's bare-knuckled tactics raised millions of dollars and rammed through President Bush's tax cuts and political agenda, they eventually led to his downfall.
He was rebuked several times by the House ethics committee -- for attacking a lobbying group that hired a Democrat, for doing favors for a company that donated heavily to Republicans and for trying to enlist the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene in a Texas political dispute.
He was forced out of his leadership post after being indicted in September for allegedly funneling corporate dollars into Texas legislative races. Defiant as always, he flew on a tobacco company's jet to his arraignment, and told Time magazine that he had prayed that Americans would see Christ through his smiling mug shot.
DeLay announced his resignation from Congress in April after two of his former congressional aides pleaded guilty to bribery charges in the Abramoff scandal, with some of the charges relating to a DeLay-led golfing expedition to Scotland. DeLay has said he had no knowledge of Abramoff's misdeeds, although he famously described Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends," and he has insisted that the Texas charges were the result of a Democratic plot to chase him out of office.
But now that DeLay is a private citizen -- he has moved his official residence to Virginia -- he is going to be spending a lot of time with his attorneys.
"DeLay was really a unique figure," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who loathes DeLay's politics but respects his political skill. "But I think like a lot of true believers who get convinced of the righteousness of their ends, he got in trouble with some of the means."
DeLay was understandably a pariah among Democrats, and they tried to celebrate his departure with a bit of the partisanship he would extol in his speech. Several Democrats introduced legislation yesterday to strengthen some of the Northern Mariana Islands labor and immigration laws that DeLay and Abramoff had led the fight to relax. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) threatened to try to block DeLay's speech through parliamentary maneuvers, although in the end most of her caucus simply skipped it.
They missed a classic performance by the Hammer. It wasn't all fire-breathing; DeLay, a foster parent, spoke eloquently about the nation's dysfunctional child-welfare system. He also waxed lyrical about his newfound appreciation for Washington's landmarks, now that he has had some free time to explore them after his ouster as majority leader.
But it was surely no accident that what really stood out for him at the Lincoln Memorial was that Honest Abe's left hand was clenched into a fist. DeLay has never been much for "malice towards none."
DeLay did praise his liberal adversaries for their willingness to stand up and fight him; he reserved his harshest attacks for "the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle." He suggested that "had liberals not fought us tooth and nail," conservatives could have accomplished much more during his 22 years in Washington.
"Now it goes without saying that by my count, our friends on the other side of the aisle lost every one of those arguments over the last 22 years, but that's beside the point," DeLay quipped. At least it sounded like a quip. It was hard to tell.
In the end, DeLay probably achieved more for conservative politics than conservative government; he attacked big-government liberalism in his farewell address, but the growth of government and special-interest spending accelerated under Republican rule.
DeLay will be remembered for transforming the worlds of fundraising and lobbying, for shutting the minority party out of the decision-making process, for raising arm-twisting and intimidation to an art form.
Republicans almost never lost floor votes when he was around; if necessary, he would hold votes until he could bully and sweet-talk enough lawmakers into taking his side. They knew he could use his close ties with conservative groups to save them from (or expose them to) primary challenges, and use his close ties with K Street to finance (or refuse to finance) their general campaigns. And they knew how he felt about partisan loyalty.
Democrats knew it, too. They raged about DeLay's stranglehold on the House, but there wasn't much they could do about it. Pelosi wrote yesterday in the Hill newspaper that by suppressing dissent and excluding Democrats from the legislative process, DeLay and his colleagues have "silenced the voices of nearly half the country."
It's that "nearly" that Tom DeLay hopes will be his legacy as he leaves the House. Although many Republicans are worried about losing of control of Congress this fall, DeLay has been urging them to stay the course, stay on the attack and stay true to their principles.
"I yield back the floor of our beloved House," DeLay said at the end of his last speech as a back-bencher. "And I exit, as always, stage right." (Video)