Tom Delay's Paradox

Before Tom DeLay suddenly let it be known Monday night that he would resign from Congress, the word in Republican circles had been that he envisioned a post-leadership career in the House as an Appropriations subcommittee and perhaps eventually full committee chairman. Such a role as a dispenser of federal pork would seem paradoxical for the congressional embodiment of the conservative movement.

DeLay’s 11-term House career now coming to a close was filled with paradoxes. He must be ranked with the great legislative leaders of all time, such as Thomas Brackett Reed, Robert A. Taft and Lyndon B. Johnson. Nobody has been as effective in enacting the conservative agenda into law, which explains the intense opposition to him. The House has been a different place since he stepped down as majority leader six months ago, easier to go along and get along for members of both parties.

The proximate cause of DeLay’s fall was Ronnie Earle, the highly partisan Democratic district attorney in Austin who unleashed prosecutions in reprisal for DeLay’s campaign of redistricting the previously gerrymandered Texas congressional seats. However, the fact that DeLay may have become unelectable in his safe Republican Houston-area district may be partially attributed to his occasional performance in the mode of an old-fashioned politician.

DeLay hardly seemed an exemplar of conservative reform when he arrived in Washington in 1984 as one of six newly elected Texas Republican House members. He was known as the favorite new Texan of House Republican Leader Bob Michel — the best hope to maintain the institutional status quo. In 1989, DeLay managed the campaign of Michel’s candidate for party whip, the staid Rep. Edward Madigan, against the flamboyant Newt Gingrich. In one of the most decisive party elections ever held on Capitol Hill, DeLay opposed the forces of change.

After Gingrich defeated Madigan by two votes, DeLay started to move toward the reformers — but not entirely. When he was running for majority whip following the Republican takeover in the 1994 elections, I was surprised to hear from him how adamantly he opposed any kind of congressional term limits (then enshrined by Gingrich’s Contract for America). DeLay defeated Robert Walker, Gingrich’s lieutenant, less on principle than on his prowess in raising and distributing funds.

Beginning in 1995, DeLay put together by far the most effective whip’s operation I have seen in my 49 years of watching Congress. At the same time, he joined the vanguard of what came to be called the New Right and became an ally of its leader, Paul Weyrich. Each Wednesday at noon, DeLay would preside over the meeting of right-wing pressure groups put together by Weyrich. He had become a leader of the national conservative movement.

Thus, DeLay emerged a contradiction in terms: a whip and an appropriator who was committed to a conservative agenda. He pressed for free trade, tax cuts, Social Security personal accounts and private health care accounts, as well as social conservative issues. As a Christian (Baptist), he participated in private Bible study groups.

There is no sign of extravagant living on DeLay’s part — only bad judgment. DeLay told me last year that he accepted lobbyist-arranged golf abroad because that was his only chance ever to play a game he dearly loved. The shrewd congressional leader did not perceive the dangers facing him when he took that course.

DeLay’s greatest peril is the federal investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff that now has moved into the heart of the former majority leader’s office, with two former aides pleading guilty. This has cut into DeLay’s formerly solid base of support in his home district and led him to decide this week that any other Republican would have a better chance of retaining the congressional seat.

But what about the greed and mendacity of some of the bright young people who worked for Tom DeLay? The suspicion is that the power politics he practiced for the public good was transmuted by those aides into their private gain. It is a stain on what the legacy should be for the most effective legislator of his time.