Tom DeLay often operated close to the ethical edge in his ascension to the powerful job of House majority leader. Today, under indictment, he stands at the precipice.
The Texas Republican, relying on political prowess, arm-twisting and devotion to his GOP majority, tightened the Republican grip on the House in his seven years as Republican whip — the party’s No. 3 leadership post — and has delivered for President Bush in his three years as majority leader.
In the process, his brass-knuckle tactics drew the ire of Democrats, Washington lobbyists and good-government types.
The House Ethics Committee admonished him three times last year and a Senate panel is pursuing his ties to Jack Abramoff, a high-powered Republican lobbyist and fundraiser under investigation for his lobbying activities on behalf of Indian tribes and his role in paying for overseas trips for DeLay. DeLay has denied knowing Abramoff paid the expenses.
DeLay: Politics of personal destruction
DeLay consistently has dismissed the carping about ethics as just politics, but the 11-term congressman faces more than just partisanship as a Texas grand jury indicted him and two political associates Wednesday on charges of conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme.
An indicted majority leader must resign his leadership post under House rules. Last November, Republicans changed the rules to allow DeLay to hold onto his leadership job if indicted, but a spate of critical newspaper editorials forced them to back down and return to the original rules two months later.
After his indictment Wednesday, DeLay quickly announced that he was temporarily stepping aside.
DeLay has denied any wrongdoing and in an April letter to supporters borrowed a phrase coined by a long-ago besieged President Clinton, arguing his opponents’ only agenda “is the politics of personal destruction,” to which he added, “and the criminalization of politics.”
Reputation for playing hardball
Dubbed “The Hammer” for his hard-nosed approach — he has two leather bullwhips in his Capitol office — DeLay has ensured House passage of much of Bush’s legislative agenda, including tax cuts, trade agreements and a Medicare prescription drug plan.
He has come through for his fellow Texan even though he once assailed Bush’s father, the former president, for breaking his pledge not to increase taxes in 1990, and took heat from Bush in the 2000 campaign for House efforts to disperse earned income tax payments to low-income families monthly instead of in one lump sum.
If DeLay has to hold a 15-minute vote open for the better part of an hour to twist arms, he will do it, as he did in securing House approval of Bush’s Central American Free Trade Agreement in July by a razor-thin margin of two votes.
Lobbyists don’t escape his version of hardball politics. DeLay complained to the Electronic Industries Alliance over its hiring of former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma as its president, and was subsequently rebuked by the ethics committee for “badgering a lobbying organization.”
To win passage of the Medicare prescription drug bill, DeLay promised a lawmaker that if he would vote for it, he would back his son’s run for Congress. The lawmaker refused, but DeLay was admonished again by the ethics committee for making the offer.
“His devotion to the cause has led him to push the envelope as hard as possible and not hold back,” said Gary C. Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego.
Quest for Republican majority
DeLay has worked tirelessly to increase the Republican majority in the House since the GOP swept out the Democrats in 1994. He has raised tens of millions for Republican candidates and used his own leadership political action committee to shower cash on GOP hopefuls.
In 2002, he helped buck the historic trend of midterm congressional election losses for the party controlling the White House; instead Republicans gained in the House.
He strong-armed a redistricting plan for Texas that led to the defeat of five Democrats in the state last year. The ethics panel rebuked DeLay for using the Federal Aviation Administration in the search for Texas Democratic lawmakers trying to avoid a vote on the redistricting proposal.
Elected to the House in 1984 from the Houston suburbs, DeLay chafed under Democratic rule for a decade before the GOP seized control. Then, in 1998, he led the charge in impeaching Clinton over the sex scandal involving a White House intern.
He might have been House speaker in 1998 after Newt Gingrich stepped down and Bob Livingston stunningly bowed out, but DeLay acknowledged that he was “too nuclear” to take the top job. He instead ensured that his deputy, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., became speaker.
A fierce conservative, he energized the Republican base earlier this year when he pushed for Congress to intervene in the case of a brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, in a direct challenge to the Florida court’s authority. For the most part, the general public questioned the congressional action and the GOP took a hit in opinion polls.
In recent weeks, DeLay has served as the bulwark against fellow conservatives who want to cut spending to offset the billions needed to rebuild the Gulf Coast states hard hit by two hurricanes.