The constant attacks on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s character and ethics are an organized liberal campaign to demonize the Texas Republican: The goal is to cripple him as a leader or to force him out of his post as second in command among House Republicans. The campaign is being orchestrated outside Congress by a coalition of liberal interest groups financed by the usual suspects. They have taken to calling themselves the “Congressional Ethics Coalition” and claim they are non-partisan citizens’ groups enraged by the “corruption” of the Republican Congress. The members of this coalition, however, are anything but non-partisan. George Soros has reportedly given the groups in the coalition upwards of $3 million, and they are staffed by former Democratic Hill aides, liberal activists and Democratic campaign workers. Feigned Outrage They have used Soros’ money and additional funds raised through telephone, mail and Internet appeals to their liberal base to finance their operations and to run television, radio and newspaper ads against DeLay and his Republican supporters. They hope to weaken DeLay’s base of support within the House GOP among members who simply want the fight to end. Congressional Democrats have seized on the issue in the hope that they can use it to destroy their Republican nemesis or turn his “corruption” into a 2006 election issue. In fact, Democratic Rep. Rahm Emmanuel of Illinois, who served for a time as President Bill Clinton’s White House political director before his election to Congress, now heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is coordinating his activities with those of the outside interest groups. The principal member groups of the liberal coalition are something called Democracy 21 chaired by former Democratic Sen. Dick Clark of Iowa; Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which includes numerous former Democratic activists and Clinton-era operatives on its board; Common Cause; Public Citizen; the Center for Responsive Politics, which continues to receive major contributions from Soros; and the Campaign Legal Center, which employs former Al Gore staffers and is being run on some $350,000 in contributions from Soros. It stretches the imagination beyond the breaking point to believe that this coalition is spearheading the media attacks on DeLay out of a true sense of outrage at alleged ethical lapses on his part. Conservatives need to understand just how important DeLay is to achieving results in Congress and what his removal would mean. He has been described as the most effective Republican congressional leader in modern memory. Without his leadership, persuasive ability and tough-minded vote-counting ability, House Republicans would be hard pressed to win important votes. Democrats in Congress know this better than the average Republican and, of all the members, would most love to remove DeLay from the GOP leadership team. It is DeLay who has frustrated them at every turn, and they know that as long as he is working behind the scenes to keep his troops in line, they have little chance of prevailing on any important House vote. Thus, the campaign against him makes all the sense in the world from their point of view. If they could get him to back off or persuade his colleagues to abandon him, they would be in a position to render House Republicans as impotent as their Senate counterparts. Still, Washington is a funny place, and Democrats seem convinced that if they can just keep piling charge upon charge they will cripple DeLay and his colleagues will put him over the side. The media have, of course, been a willing partner in this effort by recycling old stories and failing to point out that the practices for which DeLay is being condemned on an almost daily basis are engaged in by many if not most of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. They believe that whether or not they can ever prove DeLay guilty of breaking any law anywhere, the constant drip of charges will do cumulative damage to his reputation and eventually persuade even his friends to separate themselves from him to protect themselves and their reputations. The media are convinced, in fact, that the drumbeat of charges against DeLay will also make him a major liability with the voting public, because they know they are playing on the healthy public cynicism about politics in general and Congress in particular. The public, they believe, will abandon DeLay eventually on the time worn theory that “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” Smoke But No Fire The liberals have a problem, however, which stems directly from the fact that while there is a lot of smoke, they can’t seem to come up with a real fire, let alone the conflagration that might drive the man from office. Let’s take a look at the smoke:
Many of the charges leveled against DeLay involve privately financed trips the majority leader has taken over the years to Russia, Great Britain and Korea. In each case these trips were sponsored by a legitimate non-profit organization, and in each case DeLay and his staff complied with all ethics-mandated filing and disclosure requirements.
Questions have arisen, however, because of the involvement of Jack Abramoff, a lawyer-lobbyist now under investigation by the Department of Justice and the Senate for activities he engaged in while representing a number of American Indian and foreign clients. Abramoff was a friend of DeLay and of a number of other Republican representatives and senators. He had made his reputation over the years as a loyal GOP activist and later developed a lucrative D.C. lobbying practice.
DeLay’s critics like to label Abramoff “a close confidant” of the congressman and hint that knowledge of whatever Abramoff might have done wrong should be imputed to DeLay. I have no way of knowing how close the two men might have been, but I’ve been in Washington long enough to know that the streets are crowded with people who claim intimacy and influence that they don’t really enjoy to impress clients. In fact, many members of Congress have lost more than a night’s sleep wondering just what some former campaign aide or staffer is out claiming in order to get business.
DeLay doesn’t deny knowing Abramoff, meeting with him or listening to his pleas on behalf of his clients. That, after all, is part of a representative’s job. There are thousands of registered lobbyists in Washington who work every side of virtually every issue on behalf of clients who engage them to make their case to elected officials every day. What DeLay does deny is that he ever cast a vote for or against anything simply because he “knew” Abramoff or because Abramoff is a Republican or a financial contributor. With this as background, it is instructive to examine some of the charges being made by DeLay’s critics. It would be impossible to list them all, but they fall essentially into three categories:
The first is that he’s a junketeer who jets around the world in violation of congressional ethics rules as a guest of lobbyists like Abramoff.
The second is that he is enriching himself by putting relatives on his campaign payroll
And the third is that he’s raised campaign funds in exchange for promises or at least hints that the contributors will be rewarded for the money they give when issues of concern to them come before the Congress. The DeLay Trips First, let’s examine the three trips that have been in the news:
The first was a 2001 trip to Korea. DeLay and a number of other members visited Korea as part of a delegation sponsored by a group calling itself the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council or KORUSEC, which was represented in the United States by a firm headed by a former DeLay staffer. DeLay’s trip was neither the first nor the last sponsored by the group, which everyone believed at the time to be a legitimate non-profit, able to sponsor such trips under House ethics rules. Days before DeLay’s group left, however, the organization filed as a “foreign agent” with the Department of Justice. This filing made taking a trip financed by the group a violation of the ethics rules. Neither DeLay nor anyone else on the trip knew of the filing, however, and the trip went forward. DeLay did file the reports he and other members of the delegation were required to file in connection with any such trip and thought everything had been on the up and up. When it came to light later that KORUSEC had filed as a “foreign agent,” Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) demanded an investigation of DeLay, who, they claimed, either knew or should have known that he was violating the rules by taking the trip. What they failed to note as they voiced their outrage was that after DeLay took his trip, numerous Democratic representatives and staff members traveled to Korea on trips arranged and funded by this same KORUSEC, now known as a foreign agent. Long after the filing, Ms. Pelosi’s legislative director took just such a trip and, as it turned out, was the only participant on any trip to have failed to meet the reporting requirements with which DeLay had complied. This, however, didn’t seem to bother Pelosi. As she held her Republican counterpart to an artificially higher standard, she dismissed any suspicions about her own staffer through a spokesperson who told reporters that there was really no way she could have known of the filing by KORUSEC.
DeLay took two other trips–to Russia and to Britain in 2000–that were paid for by a legitimate domestic non-profit, the National Center for Public Policy Research. Questions about both trips have arisen because Abramoff then served as a board member of the center and it is now believed that he encouraged clients to contribute to the non-profit for the purpose of helping the center pay for the trip. Consistently, center spokesmen have maintained that while Abramoff, as a center board member, encouraged people to contribute, the contributions were not for the purpose of funding the DeLay trip. Moreover, they maintain that since the center, like other non-profits, is not a political committee required to publicize its contributors, there is no way DeLay could even have known what funds were or were not used to pay for these trips. Critics claim that DeLay must have known or should have demanded a list of center contributors before agreeing to the trips. Critics also claim the trips were simply junkets or that, alternatively, they were used to get DeLay to vote in support of positions Abramoff favored as a lobbyist. DeLay denies both charges, pointing out that he was heavily involved in substantive discussions with human rights activists in Russia and high-level meetings with conservatives in Britain during these trips. Unintentional Violation It turns out, however, that he did unintentionally violate an ethics rule during the British trip. Abramoff was on the trip in his capacity as a center board member and subsequent examinations of the records of the trip revealed that he had used his own credit card rather than the non-profit’s card to pay some of the expenses incurred by DeLay’s party. Abramoff was apparently reimbursed by the center for his outlays, but by paying for them at all, Abramoff put DeLay into technical violation of an ethics rule prohibiting members of Congress from accepting payment for such things from lobbyists. During a trip Pelosi took to Puerto Rico a lobbyist associated with a group sponsoring her trip did exactly the same thing. There is no reason to believe DeLay knew this had happened any more than there is that Pelosi did. That this can happen inadvertently has so worried other members that newspaper reports last week indicated that dozens of them have their staffs combing through their records to see if they too might have been inadvertent violators of this rule. In any event, these are not the sort of ethical “lapses” anyone would confuse with taking a bribe or using one’s public office and position of trust for private gain. The fact that an elected official can so easily be found in violation of a rule when he or she neither knew that it was being violated or had any intention of doing so is perhaps a reason to clarify or reform the rules, but it is not a reason to pillory the official. Nonetheless, Democrats realize that few people outside Washington will look at the facts of these cases because the rules and facts surrounding the “violations” are so vague and confusing that if the charges are made often enough and loudly enough they will have some impact as people conclude that their target “must have done something wrong.” At the very least, critics began with the trip charges because they know that much of the public might come to see DeLay as, at best, a luxury-loving congressional junketeer rather than a serious lawmaker. The problem they face in getting people to see him this way is that DeLay takes fewer trips than the majority of his colleagues, and anyone with even a superficial understanding of the way Congress operates knows that he is both a serious and effective lawmaker. Last week a new study by PoliticalMoneyLine revealed that private groups have spent more than $16 million since 2000 on travel by members of Congress and their staff. An earlier study undertaken by the Medill News Service at Northwestern University found that between 2000 and 2004 dozens of organizations sponsored more than 4,800 such trips and that DeLay was not among the most traveled congressmen. In fact, that study revealed that while Democrats do not make up a majority in either the House or Senate, they took a total of more than 600 such trips more than their Republican counterparts, with the top five travelers all coming from the Democratic side of the aisle. Harold Ford, a Tennessee Democrat, led the field by taking some 63 such trips at a reported cost of more than $167,000. The most lavish trips seem to be those sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the liberal Republican Ripon Society and an outfit calling itself the World Economic Forum, which sponsors an annual “conference” in Switzerland. All of these groups are predominantly liberal and most of the money they spend is spent taking friendly liberals to places such as Rome, Barcelona, Honolulu and the Bahamas. Of the $2.7 million the Aspen Institute spent during the period studied, for example, nearly 70% of it was spent on Democrats. The question of whether such privately financed travel should be allowed at all is open to debate, and it is clear that the rules may need changing to make the financing parties accountable for intentionally misleading those who take the trips. However, the charges against DeLay are both petty and could be made against many on both sides of the aisle. They hardly justify the vitriol directed at him by hypocritically partisan Democrats wishing to portray him as evil and corrupt. The second series of charges stem from the fact that DeLay’s wife serves as the chief executive of his political action committee and his daughter manages his campaigns. The implication is that DeLay is simply channeling campaign money through his family into his own pocket and that this is smarmy if not actually illegal. The facts are much different. Press reports aggregated the money paid to each over four or five years to make it seem as if they were getting an outrageous amount for little or no work when, in fact, they are both compensated rather modestly for the positions they hold. Family Ties By all accounts, the PAC DeLay’s wife runs raises money at a prodigious clip and no campaign manager holds what anyone would refer to as an easy, “no show” job. The Federal Election Commission has specifically ruled that it is acceptable for a politician to employ a relative so long as the relative is being compensated at market rates for work actually done. The FEC ruling came in response some years ago to a query from Jesse Jackson, but literally dozens of congressmen and senators employ relatives in similar positions. The Los Angeles Times, for example, recently reported that 10 members of that state’s 53-man congressional delegation employed relatives in various campaign capacities. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer hired her son as campaign counsel, and GOP Rep. Richard Pombo’s son has run virtually every one of his campaigns. Boxer explained to the Times that she employed her son as counsel because she’d heard “horror stories” from colleagues about campaign workers who had embezzled funds and wanted someone near her she could trust. Others have turned to family members for the same reason, citing the experience of Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to a thieving campaign worker. Neither DeLay nor any of those mentioned above paid relatives anything out of public funds, but this too has been the practice among some. When Democrat Tom Foley (Wash.) served as House speaker prior to the GOP takeover of the House in 1994, he employed his wife as his chief of staff. She is remembered as tough, competent and incredibly loyal to her boss. Not Guilty Finally, there have been charges that DeLay has improperly raised funds by promising votes in exchange for such funds. If such charges were true they would be serious indeed, but all such charges were dismissed by the House Ethics Committee and a lawsuit alleging similar activities was dismissed by a federal judge “with prejudice.” Thus, for all the alleged smoke, there seems to be no fire whatsoever. DeLay has been investigated by opponents with a vendetta against him and all he represents. He has been forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending against spurious charges, and his colleagues have been targeted by liberal advocacy groups hoping they will abandon him. None of this has worked thus far and as long as Republicans and conservatives understand what the campaign against DeLay is all about, none of it will work in the future. DeLay is fond of pointing out that he has never been found guilty of any of the charges against him. He told conservative leaders who asked to meet with him recently to discuss ways they might help him that he’s always tried to comply with every applicable law and regulation and has never intentionally broken a law or rule. That is something that his Democratic counterpart cannot say. Pelosi was fined $21,000 for her role in a scheme to evade fund-raising limits and rules. DeLay’s staunchest defenders cannot claim the man has never made a mistake, and he doesn’t claim perfection himself. But no one who has followed his career or knows DeLay can doubt for a second that he is driven not by a desire for the good life, but by the principles he espouses and for which he has spent a career fighting. Unfortunately, DeLay, like others in today’s Washington, is under personal attack because those with whom he disagrees have failed time and again in their effort to beat him on the issues. Now, desperate to take him out or cripple him, they have dedicated themselves to a political vendetta disguised as a campaign against unethical behavior. Their goal is to destroy DeLay, cripple the movement that depends on him for leadership, and to thereby discredit the agenda for which he stands. It is an important battle and one conservatives cannot afford to lose.