The Hammer Gets Hit

Ari Berman

September 29, 2005

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, based in Washington, D.C., and a Ralph Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Nation and is reprinted with permission.

The Republican Party's once-copious political capital is quickly eroding. As we go to press, House majority leader Tom DeLay has just been indicted by a Texas grand jury on one count of criminal conspiracy in a fast-moving money-laundering case. "I have notified the speaker that I will temporarily step aside from my position as majority leader," DeLay said in a statement following the stunning final day of the grand jury's term. The Republican Party's go-to guy, famously nicknamed "The Hammer," finally got whacked.

DeLay's indictment comes on the heels of charges that top political aide Jim Ellis and veteran fundraiser John Colyandro illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate contributions to candidates for the Texas legislature in 2002 through the national Republican Party. "The indictment charges DeLay with conspiring with Ellis and Colyandro to violate the Texas Election Code by contributing corporate money to certain candidates for the Texas Legislature," said the statement from district attorney Ronnie Earle. "It describes a scheme whereby corporate, or 'soft,' money was sent to the Republican National Committee where it was exchanged for 'hard' money, or money raised from individuals, and sent to those candidates." The probe initially focused on violations of Texas election law but was recently broadened to include conspiracy charges. DeLay's modus operandi —the ruthless accumulation of money and favors to benefit corporate interests and far-right Republicans—may ultimately secure his demise. In essence, he got caught for doing business as usual.

The indictment sent a shock wave through the GOP establishment, which is already reeling from a swath of criminal and ethics investigations. Three individuals, eight corporations and two political action committees connected to DeLay have been indicted as a result of the probe. In addition, the government's top procurement official, David Safavian, was arrested in September for obstructing a criminal investigation into über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close DeLay ally. Abramoff himself is under criminal investigation for defrauding Indian tribes and was indicted for wire fraud in Florida in a separate case. Top White House aides, including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, have been targeted by a special prosecutor investigating the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Representative Duke Cunningham announced he would not run for re-election after overselling his house for $700,000 to a military industry lobbyist; he too has been indicted. FDA chief Lester Crawford resigned unexpectedly after just two months on the job, possibly because of failure to report his wife's sizable pharmaceutical-industry holdings. And DeLay's Senate counterpart, Bill Frist, is battling possible insider-trading charges for dumping millions in HCA stock, a company founded by his father and run by his brother, weeks before it plunged in value. The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into Frist and HCA in September.

"The fact that Tom DeLay is under criminal indictment and Senate majority leader Bill Frist is under criminal investigation is a historic first," says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "This demonstrates the culture of corruption among the congressional leadership that has become a cancer on our country."

CREW helped former Representative Chris Bell file an ethics complaint against DeLay in June 2004, which led to three unprecedented admonishments by the previously defanged House Ethics Committee: for blackmailing a lawmaker to support the Medicare "reform" bill, for trading campaign contributions for legislation and for illegally ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to track down Texas legislators who protested his controversial redistricting plan of 2002. That plan, which DeLay rammed down the throats of the legislature, boosted the GOP House majority. More than a few conservative Republicans owe their rise to DeLay.

Consequently, last November, House Republicans repealed a rule mandating that a member of the leadership step down if indicted. Fearing backlash from party moderates and voters, the House leadership quickly reinstated the rule. But old habits die hard: House majority whip Roy Blunt, recently dubbed one of the 13 "most corrupt" members of Congress by CREW, will temporarily replace DeLay.

DeLay's iron-fist ruling style was said to be an integral part of the GOP's successes. Unprecedented party loyalty, powerful connections to big business and lobbyists on K Street, fundraising prowess, and backing from the White House and Senate leadership reinforced the perception that DeLay and his cronies were untouchable. Lawmakers who didn't vote with the leadership were thrown off committees. Those who didn't meet annual fundraising requirements were blocked from ascending the party ladder. Lobbyists who didn't identify as Republicans were told to take their business elsewhere. The arrogance of power now seems to have come full circle, with DeLay and Frist as prime examples.

Sixty percent of respondents in a recent Democracy Corps poll say the country is moving in the wrong direction. A generic Democrat running for Congress in 2006 beats a generic Republican by 9 percent in polls. Congress's approval is at an all-time low, and so is Bush's: 45 percent of respondents in a recent Democracy Corps poll are "finished with him." More and more Americans will learn about Congressional leaders through the lens of scandal and sleaze, underscoring the impression that Republicans care more about special interests than average Americans. "DeLay's name ID spiked as the scandals grew," says Karl Agne of Democracy Corps. "Now it's up to Democrats to distance themselves from the mess in Washington and articulate what they're going to do differently."

Bush promised during the 2000 presidential campaign to "change the culture of Washington." His Republican majority succeeded—for the worse.

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