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Abandon the System That Created Abramoff

This article first appeared in Roll Call (©Copyright 2006, Roll Call Inc=)

The decision by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) not to seek reinstatement as Majority Leader relieves colleagues of a difficult choice. Many feared forcing him to stand down almost as much as they feared the public relations nightmare that would result from his return to leadership. But as commentator David Brooks has stated so succinctly, Republicans now face an even more difficult choice, that is, whether to not only abandon DeLay but also to abandon “DeLayism.”

DeLay and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) ushered in a dramatic change and centralization in the way laws are made in America. DeLay was quick to recognize that centralized power in legislating could facilitate much greater centralization in the world of fundraising. While he was still in the process of moving into his new Capitol offices following the Republican takeover of the House, DeLay invited representatives of major corporations, trade associations and lobbying firms to the Capitol to talk about how they could participate in the new leadership — and what the leadership wanted from them.

What DeLay put forward was essentially a one-stop-shopping plan for K Street. It was also very clearly a “must stop” for any corporation or interest group that wanted to be taken seriously on Capitol Hill.

While centralization of legislative power was helpful in raising massive amounts of campaign money, the ability to raise that money also contributed to further centralization. Members needed the leadership not only for help in getting committee assignments, passing legislation and garnering support for chairmanships, but in the new regime, leaders played a much bigger role in who did or did not get the campaign funds needed for re-election. When DeLay walked up and down the Republican aisle in late-night sessions facing close votes, he had a lot of arrows in his quiver, and campaign cash was one of the most potent.

Yet another arrow in that quiver was the use of “earmarking” or “projects” or “pork-barrel spending.” Despite the strong objections of his party to this practice before reaching the majority, the amount of earmarking exploded under the Republicans, and DeLay and others in the leadership were able to significantly influence who got helped and who didn’t. As the number and size of earmarks grew, so did the size of the Washington, D.C., lobbying community.

After Gingrich left office, DeLay continued the process of power consolidation. Republican Conference rules limiting chairmanship tenure while allowing members of the leadership to serve indefinitely created a system of political musical chairs dominated by DeLay. Every chairman knew that his job was temporary and that his next job would depend on how many gold stars he had in DeLay’s score book.

He became adept at using mega-must-pass legislative packages to make last-minute insertions of provisions his downtown friends wanted but that could not pass muster in the normal process.

DeLay could offer much to lobbyists who met his demands, and while much of the Jack Abramoff coverage has emphasized the powerful role of lobbyists, the truth is that those lobbyists dance to whatever tune is played on Capitol Hill. It is not that Jack Abramoff and the like have somehow seized power from elected representatives. They were invited, even coaxed into the Capitol by politicians who felt that money should play a bigger role in the day-to-day deliberations of elected representatives. It is little wonder that the system has ultimately generated people like Abramoff or the “co-conspirators” who bribed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

If there are Republicans who really want to turn their backs on this sordid period in our nation’s history and reclaim the values and heritage of their party, they should not focus on reforming the lobbying community but on reforming themselves and the way in which the “people’s House” conducts public business.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow