With House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) now involved directly or tangentially in a handful of ethics cases and investigations, some analysts say that another setback could substantially weaken the lawmaker's ability to champion Republican causes and candidates.
DeLay's bare-knuckle tactics have sparked controversy and Democratic ire for years, but Thursday's 62-page report by the House ethics committee highlighted DeLay's questionable arm-twisting of GOP members when crucial votes are at stake. The panel admonished him for offering a political favor in exchange for Rep. Nick Smith's support of a major Medicare prescription drug bill late last year. The Michigan Republican was moved nearly to tears, but DeLay told investigators he made a quick exit so he would not get "stuck" talking with the loquacious and unpredictable lawmaker on the House floor.
The report's conclusion marked the second time in five years that the ethics committee has chastised DeLay. A third setback, which conceivably could come from a pending complaint, would fuel critics' claims that DeLay has crossed an ethical threshold, several analysts said yesterday.
House Republicans still support their majority leader, party members said. But they are warily eyeing the pending complaint, along with a Texas grand jury's recent indictment of three of DeLay's political associates on fundraising charges. It does not help, some say, that Senate hearings into the lobbying practices of a former DeLay spokesman and a political associate are generating searing attacks on the two men's political tactics and influence-peddling.
DeLay, an energetic partisan admired by many colleagues and loathed by Democrats, says he has done nothing improper or unethical. House Republicans "feel this is nothing but a political witch hunt and an attempt to tear down Tom DeLay through personal attacks and destructive tactics when they just can't beat him legislatively," said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Some Democrats and watchdog groups, however, say such explanations are wearing thin, especially in light of two rebukes -- one in 1999, one this week -- from an ethics panel evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
"A lot of members on Capitol Hill believe in the concept of 'three strikes, you're out,' " said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of public ethics and president of Democracy 21. "And Mr. DeLay has two strikes and a third case pending."
Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who often writes about congressional ethics, said, "I think the drip, drip, drip may create a problem for him now."
Because the Texas indictments stem from allegations central to the pending complaint, Ornstein said, the ethics panel, known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, will be under political and public pressure to at least launch a formal investigation before Congress adjourns for the elections.
That could be enough to trigger a new round of attacks on DeLay that -- even if the investigation eventually proves fruitless -- and would give the impression his ethical problems have reached critical mass, some Democrats and liberal groups said. They tried yesterday to help build that impression.
"The rebuke of Tom DeLay by the ethics committee is yet another ethical cloud hanging over the Capitol," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The liberal Campaign for America's Future called on Republicans to oust DeLay from this leadership post, and several groups -- including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- demanded that the ethics committee aggressively pursue the pending complaint, filed in June by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.).
Some Democrats say DeLay's ethics battles already are making him less potent on the campaign trail. A recent New Orleans Times-Picayune article on GOP House candidate Billy Tauzin III was headlined "DeLay's stumping for Tauzin is scaled back after scandal." DeLay staffers denied the suggestion and said he is campaigning for Republican House nominees this year at least as much as he did in 2002.
Nonetheless, said George Washington University public affairs professor Stephen Hess, the accumulation of accusations should trouble DeLay's friends because "the history of these things is that eventually it does wear down" a politician's support. DeLay has survived past storms, Hess said, partly because he "has been a shrewd enough leader to have many if not most of his legislative constituents beholden to him."
It was just that strategy that led to this week's admonishment.
On Nov. 21, 2003, DeLay and other GOP leaders keenly wanted to pass a Medicare prescription drug bill, a White House priority opposed by some House Republicans and most Democrats. Smith was a key target for arm-twisting. He had announced his retirement and wanted his son, Brad, to be elected to replace him in the 2004 elections.
According to the ethics panel's report: Smith received a phone call from former staffer Jason Roe, who "told him that there could be substantial support for Brad Smith's campaign if Representative Smith voted in favor of the Medicare bill and that he understood from a source close to . . . DeLay's office that Brad Smith could get a National Republican Congressional Committee endorsement" if the father voted aye. Roe denied alluding to DeLay's office.
DeLay deputy chief of staff Dan Flynn called Roe on that same day, "seeking information" on Brad Smith's primary race.
As midnight approached, the elder Smith told investigators, DeLay approached him on the House floor "and told him that he would personally endorse Representative Smith's son in the Republican primary" if Smith "voted in favor of the Medicare legislation." DeLay called it "my last offer," and Smith "teared up." DeLay corroborated the conversation with Smith.
DeLay's remarks caused Smith "to lend more credence to the comments [Roe] had made" on the phone. Smith told investigators "that based on the combination of his interaction with [DeLay] and his conversations with [Roe], he came to believe his son's candidacy could be significantly impacted by his vote." Smith, however, ultimately voted against the bill, and his son lost the August primary. The bill narrowly passed in the predawn hours of Nov. 22.
Nick Smith would make an assertion -- later retracted -- that unnamed sources had offered as much as $100,000 for his son's campaign in exchange for an aye vote on Medicare. Thursday's report admonished Smith for making allegations that appeared to stem from "speculation or exaggeration."
In admonishing DeLay, the ethics panel said: "It is improper for a member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal."