DeLay's Disgrace

Nick Penniman

March 31, 2005

Tom DeLay's ethical and possibly legal problems continue to mount. He's a liability to his party and represents what's wrong with American politics in general. editor Nick Penniman explains how the GOP's efforts to cast the party as pro-values are undermined by the darkening cloud of suspicion around Tom DeLay's ethics.

Nick Penniman is editor of and program director at the Campaign For America's Future.

Is Tom DeLay really worth fighting for? More than two dozen prominent Republicans think so. They met last week to plot a campaign to bolster DeLay. Perhaps they haven’t read his rap sheet carefully enough. Or perhaps their cabal is so cultish that they can’t foresee how badly their efforts could backfire. After all, any talk of DeLay automatically conjures up the worst of what the Republican Party has become.

Here’s the case against him:

DeLay’s a lobbyist’s dream come true, allowing his donors to make out like bandits while taxpayers pick up the tab. He’s cemented the ties between big lobbying firms and the Republican Party through an effort called the K Street Project. With DeLay at the helm, “Washington” is no longer the demon that Republicans fight against—it’s their closest ally.

He’s disparaged institutions and laws that most people hold in high regard. He once referred to the Environmental Protection Agency as the “Gestapo,” fought to repeal the Clean Air Act and killed a bill that would have required schools to disclose to parents the pesticides that are sprayed on school grounds.

Serving the pharmaceutical companies, DeLay rammed through legislation that prohibits Medicare from negotiating a better prescription drug price for seniors—despite the fact that more than 70 percent of the public wanted price controls to be part of the legislation. The new bankruptcy laws he heralded make it easier for creditors to go after families, many of whom have been driven into debt by out-of-control health care costs.

What does DeLay get in return? Plenty. In addition to amassing a huge war chest that he uses to buy the support of his fellow congressmen and pay his team of lawyers, he travels the world in luxury and has the lobbyists foot the bill. Some of his most extravagant trips were arranged by notorious Beltway kingpin Jack Abramoff, who’s now under investigation for a host of offenses. After one adventure, bankrolled by an Indian gambling casino to the tune of $70,000, DeLay did exactly what the casino owners wanted and blocked legislation that would have cracked down on online gambling.

For the junkets—and much more—he’s been repeatedly reprimanded by fellow congressmen for breaking ethics rules. Rather than change his ways, he gutted the committee that enforces those rules. Republicans who showed an ounce of independence were replaced by DeLay loyalists.

Ethics rules aren’t the only land mines in his path, though. He also might be indicted by a grand jury. One of his PACs, Texans for a Republican Majority, is under criminal investigation for using corporate money to finance Texas political campaigns. Two of his former aides have already been indicted.

Then there are matters which wouldn’t normally grab the public’s attention if not for the fact that DeLay himself is constantly “messaging” about morality and family values. Stories have recently resurfaced that detail his estrangement from his family. Most disturbing to those of us with older moms is that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in years even though she lives a few miles away from his home in Sugarland, Texas. She told The Washington Post that she watches him on C-SPAN to stay in contact. 

And, of course, there’s Terri Schiavo. DeLay jumped into the drama for a few days as Congress meddled in the court battle. "Murder is being committed against a defenseless American citizen in Florida," he declared. If so, then what was committed against DeLay’s father when the DeLay family—Tom included—chose to take him off of life support in 1988 after he suffered a tragic accident? DeLay backed off of Schiavo a few days ago, after polls indicated that 80 percent of Americans thought Congress should stay out of the family’s personal struggle. 

There’s grand-scale legislative hypocrisy as well. Until President Bush was elected, DeLay was an avid proponent of balanced budgets, going so far as to propose a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Since then, he’s voted for every budget-busting bill that came up for a vote. America’s never been in so much debt and the Republicans’ talk of fiscal responsibility has never been so muted.

So, let’s say you’re a very important Republican and none of these activities, on principle, bother you much. None assault your sense of morality. None, in your mind, violate the public trust. None take America in the wrong direction. You’re just an amoral political mercenary who will weigh the pros and cons and then do whatever is best for the party. 

Here’s the problem you can’t avoid: Tom DeLay embodies all of the major liabilities of the Republican Party. In a recent survey conducted by Democracy Corps about the two major political parties, three of the top five negative aspects respondents used to describe Republicans were: 1) “For the big corporations and most privileged” 2) “Big federal budget deficits” and 3) “Greed.”

DeLay turbo-boosts the most damning intuitions people have about the GOP. 

So, Republicans of all stripes, consider this: All the time you’ve spent trying to brand the party as anti-Washington, strong on values, fiscally responsible, a counterweight to extremists, home of NASCAR dads and middle-class dreams, could be laid to waste by the all-too-true image of the party projected by DeLay. The GOP of Tom DeLay is a party that serves the lobbyists; a party indistinguishable from the Beltway; a party that let power get to its head and corruption to its heart; a party that cheaply uses “moral values” to hide its dubious dealings.

And for those of us who aren’t political mercenaries, or very important Republicans, or Republicans at all, DeLay insults our deep belief that the great experiment of America should be guided by the needs of the many, not the desires of the privileged few.

For us, Tom DeLay is a profound disgrace. And the Republican Party, now gearing up to defend him against all odds, is about to disgrace itself.