The indictment yesterday of Tom DeLay ended -- at least for now -- the reign of the most powerful leader the House of Representatives has seen in decades.
Love him or hate him -- and pretty much everybody did one or the other -- DeLay was the man who, more than Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey or Denny Hastert, consolidated the gains of the Republican Revolution of 1994 and institutionalized an enduring Republican majority in the Congress.
DeLay never became speaker himself -- and his indictment yesterday in Texas makes it increasingly unlikely that he will reach his goal of succeeding Hastert -- but in practice he ran the legislative agenda on Capitol Hill for the better part of a decade.
In opposition during the Clinton administration, he was a pivotal figure in the "Contract With America," and high-profile battles over health care, budgets and impeachment. During the Bush administration, he was responsible for the lockstep discipline in the House that passed President Bush's agenda and forced action in a wobbly Senate.
"Tom DeLay is an historically giant figure in the ascendancy to power of the Republican Party for the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st century," said former Republican congressman Bill Paxon, now a lobbyist. "If you look back at virtually everything we've accomplished, he's been vital to that success."
Democrats grudgingly agree. "He's easily the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, and nobody's in his weight class," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. "He exerts the kind of discipline that hasn't been seen in decades."
Indicted by a Democratic district attorney in Texas, DeLay said yesterday that he is the victim of "blatant political partisanship" -- a complaint that echoed the protests of Bill Clinton and other DeLay foes when their ethical lapses were turned into major scandal by DeLay's personal, bare-knuckled brand of politics.
"This is an old story that keeps repeating: The people who are way out there and pushing the limits of power, they eventually are pushed out themselves," said James A. Thurber, a political science professor at American University. "Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich did that, and they went. Now Tom DeLay. It was just a matter of time."
DeLay's removal as majority leader leaves a large vacuum in the GOP at a time when party discipline was already suffering. Bush, his approval ratings at all-time lows, has lost much of his sway over congressional Republicans, and there are divisions in the party over spending, Iraq and legislative priorities. As such, DeLay's absence in leadership presents the party he built with an existential challenge: Can it maintain DeLay's massive fundraising machine and centralized discipline without DeLay himself in charge?
When he moved up to become majority leader from whip three years ago, he was given by a lobbyist a velvet-covered hammer, to designate that he would rule with a lighter touch in his new job. In fact, he continued to pound away almost all the time -- for campaign money, for control of the legislative and ideological agenda, and for prominence in downtown Washington where the lobbyists rule.
His network of former staffers among lobbyists and in the world of fundraising was so extensive that it earned the sobriquet DeLay Inc. His people started several all-Republican lobbying firms, populated dozens of others and were the engine of a huge multimillion-dollar fundraising machine that helped keep Republicans in the majority.
Under him, the House floor operated like a GOP machine, thanks largely to the backroom cajoling and campaign money from DeLay, aided by his protege who succeeded him, Roy Blunt. "When the president's agenda didn't have full support by Republicans in the House, he made sure it gets done and passes," said Stuart Roy, a former communications director for DeLay now working for a lobbying firm. "He got everything from the president's tax relief to Bush's money for AIDS initiative in Africa. For DeLay, success begot success. Once he was able to deliver on a few big things early on in the Republican majority, it built upon itself."
The 58-year-old DeLay, who ran a pest-exterminating business in the Houston area before coming to power, is a devout Christian known for his charitable work involving foster children.
As a legislator, he has quite a different reputation. He has held votes "open" on the House floor while he strong-arms wayward Republicans to support the party line. He earned a rebuke when he told one lawmaker that he would support his son's bid for Congress if the lawmaker would vote for a Medicare prescription bill DeLay favored. Most famously, he championed a redistricting plan that won the GOP five more seats in Congress and created the controversy that led to yesterday's indictment.
As a fundraiser, DeLay, now in his 11th term, has been an industry unto himself. In addition to his own reelection fund, which for 2006 has already collected $1.2 million, his fundraising entities have collected many millions of dollars that have flowed into the coffers of Republicans he wanted to place in office.
DeLay also was a behind-the-scenes maneuverer to take control of "downtown" Washington. He and his aides were active in promoting Republicans as the heads of Washington corporate offices and trade associations -- the so-called K Street Project. DeLay was chastised by the House ethics committee for his role in trying to force the Electronics Industries Alliance to chose a Republican as its chief executive, an effort that ultimately failed. Other efforts, more subtle, were successful.
DeLay has often been accused of running close to the edge of legality and ethical behavior. He has three times been admonished by the House ethics committee and has asked the panel to look into his much-written-about travels with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, whose more than $80 million in fees from American Indian tribes is under investigation by the Justice Department, worked closely with DeLay and his staff. Ethics lawyers say DeLay may well have been in technical violation of ethics rules, because Abramoff paid for some travel expenses for DeLay during trips to Britain and elsewhere.
Publicly, Republicans stood by their embattled colleague Wednesday. Privately, some began to talk of a post-DeLay era. Either way, they were hopeful that, whatever happened with the legal troubles, DeLay had institutionalized his fundraising and vote-whipping prowess so much that it would outlive him. "He is a conviction politician like Ronald Reagan; he's also been a party builder," said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist and DeLay ally. "DeLay always kept his eye on building party and the movement, and that's rare."