When House Majority Whip Tom DeLay went to dinner one night last spring with lobbyist Ed Buckham, his former chief of staff, the subject naturally turned to money.
Buckham, an evangelical minister whom DeLay once introduced at a fund-raiser as his pastor, told his former boss there was a huge reservoir of conservative wealth that could help Republicans neutralize the money that unions were expected to spend on Democratic congressional candidates, and he knew how to tap it. And so over their table at the 701 restaurant, they fleshed out some of the details of something called the Republican Majority Issues Campaign.
It would be, DeLay and Buckham agreed, an independent get-out-the-vote campaign that would target conservatives in roughly two dozen races across the country. By soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual donors, the group would be able to test which issues energized conservatives the most and then run ads and phone banks aimed at drawing those voters to the polls. And as long as the Republican leadership wasn't directly controlling the group, the names of the donors would not have to be disclosed.
It was a novel idea because of its potential to raise huge amounts of money virtually in secrecy. It was audacious in its willingness to push the boundaries of campaign finance law. And it reflected the fundamental belief of DeLay that Republicans and their allies can always tap new sources of wealth to help their party.
"Tom thinks in big terms," Chief Deputy Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) explained. "Tom thinks there's no finite amount of money out there to be raised. There's an infinite amount of money to be raised."
"He is the Nike fund-raiser," said former representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). "He just does it."
With the House up for grabs in the 2000 election, DeLay's prodigious fund-raising ability makes him the key figure in the battle by Republicans to keep their majority just as it has established him as the House's most powerful figure, eclipsing both Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).
So far this year, according to GOP officials, DeLay has personally collected more than $15 million for Republican congressional candidates. Not only has DeLay raised roughly a million dollars for his own reelection campaign and political action committee, he also is responsible for collecting $12.7 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee, nearly half its total. And he raised more than $1.3 million in a special effort to help 10 vulnerable GOP incumbents.
DeLay fully intends to increase the traditional Republican money advantage in congressional races, but this year he faces a newly energized fund-raising effort by House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who are convinced that they can overcome their five-seat deficit and regain control of the House.
But in the relentless quest for money, DeLay is unmatched in his tenacity and effectiveness. More than the strong-armed tactics that have earned him his moniker "The Hammer," more than the combative rhetoric that has made him a favorite of the GOP right, it is the money he raises that has allowed him to move into the vacuum created by the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich.
`DeLay Inc.' Offers a Deal
Like Gingrich, DeLay has created an elaborate fund-raising mechanism -- "DeLay Inc." -- that has harnessed the city's business community, tapping trade association executives and private lobbyists to support the Republican legislative agenda as well as pour millions into GOP candidates' coffers. The eight-term Houston congressman offers key Washington power brokers a straightforward deal: a seat at the table to plot legislative and political strategy in exchange for help in passing the Republicans' agenda and financial support for GOP candidates.
DeLay also helps these lobbyists achieve their own legislative goals in the process, knowing this only will heighten their ability to appeal to clients and trade association members for campaign contributions.
While members of both parties include lobbyists among their closest advisers, DeLay's trademark is the seamless integration of K Street into the fabric of a party's legislative, political and fund-raising operation. It provides the GOP with vast new resources, and its chosen confidants with unparalleled access.
DeLay is unabashed about his dealings with the lobbyists. "It's in their interest to keep a Republican majority, and it's a way to keep a Republican majority and get our job done," he said. "It's sort of, `Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' "
And he has little patience for those, especially Democrats, who find such relations unseemly or even unethical. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," he said. "All you have to do is look them in the eye and ask: Have you ever talked to a lobbyist?"
"We do it for the good of mankind, but DeLay does it for money," he mimicked the Democrats. "I'm doing it for the good of mankind. I'm trying to undo everything they've done."
While Gingrich used his money network to toy with presidential visions, DeLay is single-minded in his goal to preserve GOP control of the House. This helps explain why he gives as generously to moderates as conservatives, and is willing to take up what others in his party view as an unpleasant task.
Indeed, many Republicans are willing to accept DeLay's tactics because of the results. As Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) puts it: "There are a good number of Republicans who are bothered by his lack of subtlety. The bottom line is they're willing to accept his lack of subtlety because the money is going to come in."
But some are more skeptical. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has publicly feuded with DeLay over campaign finance reform, said he would have no comment about DeLay's methods. When asked whether the whip's relationship with lobbyists concerned him, Shays simply responded, "Yes, I'm concerned. That's my answer."
Others are more openly critical. "What concerns me is that because of the magnitude of money that is now in modern politics, the power that Tom DeLay wields takes on a different flavor," said Common Cause legislative director Meredith McGehee. "When you're in the middle of the mix, with the ability to dole out legislative favors, the ability to dole out money, and the ability to connect with K Street, which controls even more purse strings, that's a pretty powerful cocktail."
Fund-Raising's Many Names
DeLay employs a number of vehicles to direct money to candidates: his own reelection campaign fund; his leadership political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority; the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's House campaign committee; the Restore Our Majority Program, a fund designed to funnel money to endangered incumbents; and in a more indirect way, the Republican Issues Majority Campaign.
Although the NRCC is run by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), DeLay is now its single largest fund-raiser, his name replacing that of Gingrich on much of the committee's direct mail, and he personally solicits many of the big "soft money" checks that the parties increasingly rely on.
To the K Street lobbyists who control business giving, there is little distinction. Asked to differentiate between the DeLay team and that of the NRCC, one lobbyist close to the majority whip said simply, "It's one and the same."
DeLay, in fact, played a key role in Davis's securing the NRCC post. Within days of last fall's unexpected election debacle, Davis decided to run for the job against Gingrich's handpicked chairman, Georgian John Linder. DeLay supported him and "loaned" Davis his chief floor assistant, Scott Hatch, to run his campaign. "We were able to defuse conservatives' concerns about Davis," said Hatch, who went on to become the NRCC's executive director after Davis won.
Stepping into a Vacuum
DeLay emerged on the national scene during the impeachment crisis in the House last year. Stepping into the GOP leadership vacuum created by Gingrich's surprise resignation, DeLay unified the GOP caucus, even most moderates, behind the drive to impeach President Clinton, while Democrats vilified him as a symbol of right-wing animus.
Elected to Congress in 1984, DeLay learned how to maximize the influence he could wield in the Republican caucus. As head of the Republican Study Committee, DeLay marshaled conservative outrage, publishing critiques of legislative initiatives and even confronting other GOP leaders like President George Bush when he agreed in 1990 to raise taxes as part of a deal with Democrats. He also used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to maximum effect, mastering a process that delivered pork both to his own district and to other, more vulnerable lawmakers.
And he lost no time in establishing ties with Washington interest groups. Just a few yards away from the popular Hill hangout Bullfeathers, DeLay and little-known Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (R-Ohio) used the Independent Insurance Agents of America's conference room as a place to bring together family values and corporate lobbyists on Tuesday to grab lunch and mull over legislative tactics.
Lacking the legislative muscle of the Democrats, DeLay chose people who could provide him with the information he needed to torpedo the majority's agenda: Christian Coalition legislative director Marshall Wittmann, Dutko Group vice president Gary J. Andres, Eagle Forum executive director Susan Hirschmann (who later became DeLay's chief of staff), Heritage Foundation vice president for government relations Kate O'Beirne, and others. IIAA executive vice president Bob Rusbuldt, who hosted the lunches, was instrumental in lining up lobbyist support for DeLay in his whip race in 1994.
In DeLay's eyes, he was simply copying the Democrats.
"The Democrats are much better than us in getting people to stick together in a coalition when they're not necessarily paid to do it," he said. "They have the pro-abortion people working with the labor people. They'll have the labor people do anything, they'll work on the environment."
After the GOP takeover in 1994, DeLay worked with Gingrich in monitoring interest groups' contributions to Republicans, but it was only at the beginning of the 106th Congress that he formalized his relationship with lobbyists. House GOP Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio) had been the official liaison with business interests, and after his defeat DeLay took over his duties, organizing K Street on his own terms -- he calls it "a mirror whip operation" -- in order to pass legislation.
D.C.'s Lobbying Community
The nearly 20 men and women who gather in DeLay's conference room on Wednesday morning provide a broad cross-section of D.C.'s lobbying community. There are representatives from large trade groups, such as the National Restaurant Association's Elaine Graham and the American Trucking Associations' Jim Whittinghill. There are individual lobbyists with a wide array of clients, such as Andres or Rick Kessler, who is as well known for his ties to moderate Republicans as to pharmaceutical companies.
While these individuals can boast that they have a seat at the table when the leadership is plotting its overall legislative strategy, a broader group is called in to push specific bills. These coalitions, which consist of "steering committees" and then a wider group of supporters, are fully activated once the bill in question is approaching the floor.
Their composition changes depending on the issue at stake: Bakers and manufacturers focused on a measure blocking new federal ergonomics regulations, while defense industry officials pushed for passage of emergency funds for the war in Kosovo. While some lobbyists may not be hired to work on the specific bill they are enlisted to support, they often count on DeLay's office for aid later on when a provision they care about is in jeopardy.
"If he can't help them, they're not able to go back home and lobby their companies to give money for Republicans," Buckham argued. "They have to go back to their people and say they're effective so they can continue to advocate for Republicans."
Buckham knows how the system works firsthand. As a lobbyist for the Texas energy giant Enron, he alerted DeLay this year that the company lost out to a Japanese firm in a contest to build a power plant in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific whose controversial immigration and labor policies DeLay has personally championed. Rumors had surfaced that the bidding was rigged, so DeLay, whose district is home to Enron, wrote officials in the Marianas to reopen the competition. The officials relented, and bidding process will now begin again.
As DeLay and his staff began to focus on the 2000 elections in the aftermath of the impeachment battle, they assigned a key role to their lobbyist allies. "We must for the moment put aside the hysteria of the possibility of losing the majority in two years and really focus on what it is we intend to do to ensure victory today, victory tomorrow and victory in 2000," DeLay spokesman Michael Scanlon wrote in a memo last February. "In essence, we have the talent, ability, and resources to fight and win. We must now ignore others and focus solely on what we can directly control."
What DeLay controlled was his whip operation and his K Street allies, and those were the soldiers he enlisted to implement the first part of his 2000 strategy, which he named the Retain Our Majority Program, or ROMP. The idea was to get money early in the election cycle to a group of 10 endangered GOP incumbents such as California Rep. James E. Rogan, a manager in the Clinton impeachment trial, and at the same time broaden their base of contributors.
Lobbyists such as Andres, who raised $20,000, went to their clients or industries. House members, such as Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of a key subcommittee with jurisdiction over the telecommunications industry, held fund-raisers and invited their key donors.
DeLay was an enthusiastic impresario, and at a climactic lunch at the Capitol Hill Club in June that began with lobbyists trooping in and handing over their checks to individual staff members, DeLay called up each of the targeted Republicans to his side, as if they were the starting lineup for an NBA team. As he prepared to announce the grand total the lawmakers had received as part of the ROMP program, someone in the crowd called out "Drumroll!" and a room full of lobbyists responded giddily with their own version.
At DeLay's signal two female staffers flipped around an oversized check on an easel, a la Vanna White, to reveal the number they had just scribbled in: more than $1.3 million.
In ROMP DeLay employed the same strategy he pioneered several years ago, directing money to other Republicans rather than simply doling it out himself. While a leadership or corporate PAC could only donate a total of $10,000 over the course of an election, for example, these same lawmakers and industry representatives could use their connections to steer much greater sums to threatened members.
DeLay uses his popularity with rank-and-file conservatives and big donors to aid the NRCC. Most of the $12.7 million he has raised for the committee came from national direct-mail and telemarketing appeals, where his signature and recorded message is enough to spur donations. Other times DeLay goes to an assigned booth and calls $100,000 donors.
When Hatch, the intense young DeLay aide who is now the executive director of the committee under Davis, first worked at the NRCC in 1994, the program for major business givers was taking in about $500,000 a year. Teamed up with DeLay, Hatch made an aggressive effort to give K Street more of what it wanted from the party: "customer service."
In less than a year, the business givers had anted up $1.4 million, Hatch said, and that was when Republicans were still in the minority. Today the program brings in more than $4 million a year.
While the Republican Issues Majority Campaign is separate from the NRCC, it may play a critical role in the upcoming election. The group already has collected between $3 million and $5 million in pledges, and aims to raise more than five times that by the end of next year to identify conservatives and get them to vote. Just this month, its organizers are holding a fund-raiser in Nashville complete with prominent recording artists.
Former DeLay fund-raiser Karl Gallant, who heads the operation, said its activities in roughly two dozen districts across the country will be modeled on those of organized labor and it is therefore shielded from federal campaign disclosure requirements. Democrats have challenged this assertion and appealed to the Justice Department. On Friday Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) used DeLay's ties to RIMC as an example of what is wrong in the current campaign finance system, saying, "We are making sure in our bill that it is a crime to do this sort of thing."
DeLay has kept a careful distance from the group -- he says it "ain't mine" -- but has lent his fund-raising talent to the effort on occasion. This summer, for example, he flew to Texas to meet with a donor and garnered more than $200,000 for RIMC as a result.
10 Events a Week
DeLay's fund-raising is tireless, not just for Republican candidates but also for conservative groups such as Americans for Tax Reform. His aides estimate he drops in on roughly 10 events a week, and Paxon says the whip often shows up at his home in suburban Virginia at 9 or 10 at night, having attended three fund-raisers and barely eaten.
DeLay says he prefers small fund-raising dinners like the one he holds in the pricey Capital Grille steak house and attends about three a month for his leadership PAC when Congress is in session.
"I hate those big cattle calls. I feel very uncomfortable when people just shake your hand and keep moving after they've given you a lot of money," he said. "I like the more personal touch. It allows me to have a closer relationship with people supporting me, and I think they like it more too."
DeLay's effectiveness is based on equal parts backslapping, solicitude and blunt talk -- what lobbyist Mark Isakowitz called "being loved and feared. In March this year Isakowitz and his partner Donald Fierce brought their clients from the hospital, construction and fast-food industries to a private room at the Capital Grille, where they gently mocked his legendary reputation.
"You are known as The Hammer," Isakowitz said, "but with a six-seat majority we thought it might require a bit of a softer touch."
And with that, Isakowitz handed over a hammer he had picked up at Hechinger's -- encased in royal blue velvet. After the laughter died down, DeLay was ready with a rejoinder.
"This is good, because you can still hit hard, but it just doesn't leave any marks," he replied.
But more than anything else his success is based on dogged determination.
"My daddy, if he taught me anything, and he taught me very little, is I never could quit," he said. "I have a basic political philosophy: Hard work wins every time. I have always won by outworking my opponents."
Staff writer Susan B. Glasser and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
DeLay's Kitchen Cabinet
PrestonGates, Rouvelas Meeds
The Dutko Group
Alexander Strategy Group
National Federation of Independent Business
Hooper, Hooper, Owen & Gould
United Parcel Service
National Restaurant Association
Williams & Jensen
Kessler & Associates
Americans for Tax Reform
National Beer Wholesalers Association
Independent Insurance Agents of America
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
National Association of Realtors
American Trucking Associations