When Tom DeLay officially resigns from Congress he will leave an empty seat in Texas and another one on the House Appropriations Committee. He will also leave the Republican Party up to its neck in scandal — much of it generated from his office — and a House of Representatives that has more resembled the Congress of the Supreme Soviet in recent years than the centerpiece of American democracy that our forefathers intended. But most importantly he will leave behind the question: How did this happen?
Tom DeLay is a man of not only strong but also extreme views. On economic issues he is a libertarian who feels that virtually no law or regulation that interferes with the prerogatives of business is justified. On social issues he is almost the mirror opposite — an authoritarian, willing to inject government into the most intimate of personal decisions ranging from death to sexual preference.
On religious issues he insists that failure to give preeminence to his extreme brand of evangelicalism constitutes an “attack on Christianity.” In 2002, he told an audience in Texas: “Ladies and gentlemen, Christianity offers the only viable, reasonable, definitive answer to the questions of ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Where am I going?’ ‘Does life have any meaningful purpose?’ But he was not speaking of Christianity in a generic sense. In the same speech he warned, “Don’t send your kids to Baylor,” signaling that in his view the world’s largest Baptist university had drifted too far left to be an appropriate place for young “Christian” minds.
Molly Ivins described Tom DeLay most succinctly: “He offers a mix of moral certitude and political corruption that is a truly toxic cocktail.”
It is not remarkable that someone should hold such views — there are certainly others in this society with similar political, religious and ethical beliefs. It is not even surprising that such a person might serve in Congress since there are more than a few of the 435 Congressional Districts in which these views are acceptable to a majority of voters. But it is truly remarkable that such a man could have become the most powerful member of the House of Representatives in nearly a century; that he could reshape the institution of Congress and become a central force in setting the policy agenda for his party and the entire federal government. While DeLay may represent the sentiments of some districts his philosophy and style of governance is grossly out of step with mainstream sentiment in the overwhelming majority of Congressional Districts, including a great many held by fellow Republicans.
But for some reason that never stopped Tom DeLay from almost always getting the 218 votes he needed to do virtually anything that he wanted. From shutting down the government, to attacking environmental regulation, slashing education funding, protecting drug company profits, preventing increases in the minimum wage, raising Congressional pay or exempting himself from ethics committee investigations, DeLay always had the votes.
That was possible only because a lot of “mainstream,” “old line,” “moderate” Republicans who went home on weekends and talked about tolerance, public investment and the progressive values of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower returned to Washington each Tuesday to vote however Tom DeLay told them.
Why did people like Sherwood Boehlert, Mike Castle, Chris Shays, Shelley Capito, Jo Ann Emerson, Charlie Bass, Jim Leach, Sue Kelly, Fred Upton, Heather Wilson, Frank LoBiondo and a dozen or more other Republican moderates allow a person with values so dramatically out of line with those of their district and of traditional Republicanism seize control of their party and their Congress?
For much of the time since the Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, the defection of as few as a half dozen Republicans would have brought DeLay and others in their leadership to their knees. Even in the current Congress, any 14 Republicans can say no. But it did not happen, and the House moved increasingly away from a deliberative body in which formal hearings, testimony, amendments and debate shaped the laws that were written into one in which laws were dictated by those at the top based on cozy relationships and the flow of campaign contributions and special favors.
At some point DeLay became too powerful to oppose. In January of 2005, DeLay and others in the Republican leadership stripped Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey of his chairmanship over the Veterans’ Affairs Committee because Smith argued that VA Medical programs could not function on the amounts contained in the President’s budget request. Rather than come to the defense of a fellow chairman, the 19 other full committee chairmen cowered in the back recesses of the House chamber hoping they would not meet a similar fate. Smith himself accepted a subcommittee chairmanship on the International Relations Committee and seemed to express relief that he had not been treated more harshly. No one seemed to notice that in the end Smith was proven right and Congress was forced to rush through additional funding for the VA medical program to keep it from shutting down.
Having clearly established the principal that “might makes right,” DeLay decided to dislodge Joel Hefley (R-CO), the Chairman of the Ethics Committee, and replace him with a member of the Rules Committee — a member who clearly recognized that his aspiration to chair that committee in the 110th Congress was tied to not only accepting the unpleasant position but performing it in a manner that would please the person who had removed Hefley. Hefley told the Washington Post, “I’m not naive enough to not know that there are some folks that are very upset with me because they think we were too harsh with DeLay.”
A few isolated Republican members, like Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, took a stand on behalf of Hefley as well as Congress as an institution and the good name of their own party. But nearly everyone else simply knuckled under; ignored commitments they had made to moderation in their districts and found excuses for accommodating the growing stench of a regime that demanded from them the authority that rightfully belonged to those back home who elected them. Not since Czar Cannon was stripped of power 96 years ago has so much power been concentrated in the hands of one member of Congress.
So what do they do now? Now that the “Hammer” is gone, members of the Republican Conference have an opportunity to rethink the structure that they have allowed to evolve in recent years. Will they recognize that the kind of centralized power machine that they allowed Tom DeLay to build interferes in a very basic way with their ability to represent the views and interests of the voters that sent them to Washington? Will they recognize that the kind of concentration of power they have permitted to devolve into the hands of a few super-powerful individuals is a clear prescription for the kind of the cronyism and corruption that is being uncovered with each new edition of the morning papers?
Regardless of the impact that the scandals surrounding Tom DeLay may have on the November elections, America needs two strong, responsible parties that represent reasonably mainstream values and compete vigorously for the allegiance of mainstream voters. Now is the opportunity for Republicans to restore themselves as such a party.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.