DeLay Exits, Stage (Hard) Right

By Ruth Marcus
Monday, June 12, 2006

No one who's seen Tom DeLay operate over the years could have expected the Texas Republican to go gently: The Hammer always comes down hard. But DeLay's farewell address on the House floor last week was nonetheless stunning for its sneering, belligerent partisanship.

This was not the case of a politician who happened to hit a jarring note at just the wrong time. DeLay made clear that he wanted to leave the way he behaved throughout his 22 years in Washington -- contemptuous of the opposition and unrepentant about his cutthroat tactics.

"In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy," DeLay said.

"Well, I can't do that," he said, and that statement had the ring of truth, as if his allergy to bipartisanship is an almost physical limitation. In DeLay's world, "It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle."

This is a man who -- now that he's had time to take in the monuments -- sees Lincoln's statue and fixates on the one hand clenched in a "perpetual fist."

I hadn't planned to write about DeLay's departure. He's under indictment in Texas and out of power in Washington; it seemed gratuitous to kick the man on his way out. But DeLay's speech cries out for, if nothing else, a review of the ethical and political wreckage left behind.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- "one of my closest and dearest friends," as DeLay once described him -- was one of the chief financiers of DeLay Inc., trading on his access to DeLay and his office to make millions. DeLay's former communications director Michael Scanlon has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials when he left the Hill to work with Abramoff. DeLay's former deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy admitted taking bribes while working for the Texan -- not only the usual grubby gift bag of skybox seats and golfing trips but also $86,000 in payments funneled to his wife's consulting company.

Edwin A. Buckham, DeLay's former chief of staff, surfaces in the court papers as "Lobbyist B," who steered money to the Rudys. (Buckham also put DeLay's wife, Christine, on his payroll, for a total of about $115,000.) Another DeLay chief of staff, Susan Hirschmann, topped a recent list of congressional staffers scooping up free trips; she and her husband accepted $84,000 in freebie travel in a mere 26 months.

DeLay's reaction to all this has been to assert ignorance of the corruption swirling around him. But this behavior was the predictable result of the scorn for the ordinary norms of politics that was DeLay's modus operandi. As his former communications director John Feehery wrote in The Post's Outlook section, "People like Rudy and Scanlon pleased DeLay because they were always pushing the envelope."

These are people who behaved contemptibly in government because they have such contempt for government.

The fact that DeLay himself has managed to amass four rebukes from the normally somnolent House ethics committee is a testament to his excessiveness. He was chastised first in 1999 for trying to bully a trade group out of hiring a retiring Democratic congressman.

In 2004, he was admonished for three more missteps: drafting Federal Aviation Administration officials to help hunt down fleeing Texas Democrats trying to foil his redistricting plan; offering to endorse the son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) in exchange for the congressman's vote for the Medicare prescription drug bill; and holding a golf fundraiser for energy companies on the eve of House consideration of energy legislation.

DeLay's money-laundering indictment in Texas arises from his efforts to evade the state's ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns. DeLay and his aides routed the money through Washington, desperate to forge a GOP statehouse majority that would let them redraw the state's congressional districts and cement Republican control of the House. I've had my doubts about whether this should be a criminal prosecution, but the episode illustrates DeLay's relentlessness in the pursuit of political goals.

And this is the core of DeLay's damaging legacy. He dismantled the barriers between the Capitol and K Street, inviting friendly lobbyists -- and he kept a list, literally, of who had given enough to make the grade -- to write legislation. DeLay's pay-to-play House worshipped campaign cash (a committee chairmanship did not come cheap) and stifled dissent, from inside the party or out.

As he addressed his colleagues for the final time, DeLay betrayed no doubt that his tactics had ever edged even slightly across the line, no hint of recognition of the poisonous consequences of GOP authoritarianism under his sway.

There is a place for partisanship, and an honor in hewing to principles that divide the parties. But DeLay's zero-sum politics diminishes the capacity of government to solve difficult problems. Compromise isn't just an occasionally necessary evil, as DeLay sees it. Practiced well, it can be a mechanism for distilling the best public policy, or at least a better one than either faction would achieve on its own.

"If given the chance to do it all again, there's only one thing I would change," DeLay said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. "I would fight even harder."

That was all too believable.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company