Tom DeLay is in a heap of trouble — or so the media would have you believe. For weeks now, the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times have hammered away at the House majority leader for a series of supposed transgressions. Some editorial staffer at the New York Times went so far as to try to persuade former Republican Congressman Bob Livingston to write an op-ed calling for DeLay to step aside for the good of the party, according to columnist Robert Novak. But what exactly is it that Tom DeLay is alleged to have done? After hundreds of hours of investigative work by the nation’s biggest news organizations, the evidence of any actual ethical — much less legal — breach is pretty thin. Now contrast the media coverage of l’affaire DeLay with, say, the admission by former Clinton National Security Adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger that he stole and destroyed classified documents that might have shed light on the Clinton administration’s failure to take seriously the threat posed by al Qaeda. No wonder conservatives are a little paranoid about media bias.
Like many members of Congress and their staffs, DeLay has taken trips overseas paid for by third parties. Frankly, I think this is a lousy practice. If members or their staffs need information that can only be gleaned through traveling abroad, then the government should pick up the tab. My guess is there would be fewer trips, but so what? These trips have earned the term “junkets” for good reason. But DeLay is hardly the only member who has taken the largesse of groups trying to influence government.
The congressional ethics rules require these trips to be paid for by so-called 501(c)(3) groups, named for the tax code section that grants them exempt status. But it’s silly to suggest that such groups aren’t seeking influence (I should know, I’ve headed up several such organizations over the last 20 years). While they may not be lobbying Congress directly, such groups advocate public policy positions that can only be helped by close association with powerful senators and congressmen. Since money is fungible, it is often difficult to track whether such groups are really providing conduits for corporations or other prohibited groups to pay for the trips indirectly by making tax-deductible contributions to the policy group that then pays for the trip — which is what the Post has tried to tar DeLay with.
In the most recent charge, the media have accused DeLay of going on a trip to Russia paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which allegedly received donations second- or third-hand from Russian energy interests. So far, there’s no proof that DeLay knew about, much less approved, these contributions. He might be guilty of keeping bad company — lobbyist Jack Abramoff, currently under criminal investigation for some of his activities on behalf of Indian gaming interests, was on the Russia trip and may have ginned up the contributions that paid for it — but at the time DeLay took the trip, he had no way of knowing how unsavory his companions were. The best way to prevent such abuse would be to prohibit any third party from paying for trips, period. But I don’t see many Democrats advocating drastically changing the rules.
Which brings me to my second point. Why is it that the DeLay story has so dominated the media when the story of former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger’s amazing guilty plea produced barely a footnote? The New York Times covered the story April 2 on page 10 with fewer than 600 words. And no one in the national media has seemed very interested in exploring why Berger stole and destroyed highly classified documents. “His motives in taking the documents remain something of a mystery,” the usually inquisitive Times noted blandly. The Los Angeles Times (which at least put the story on page 1) ventured this guess as to why Berger took scissors to some copies of the stolen memos but not others: “Berger was notorious for having a desk that looked like it had been hit by a hurricane, and his defenders seemed to be suggesting he had held onto some copies and cut up others in order to avoid losing them.” Yeah, right.
Could it be that maybe, just maybe, the hand-written notes in the margins of some documents might have made Berger or Bill Clinton look bad? You can bet if the documents had something to do with a trip by Tom DeLay, there would be 100 reporters assigned to find out.