Criminalized politics

Posted: Oct 14, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- "They're trying to make Tom DeLay into Jim Wright. They've stolen our playbook," declared an outspoken deputy whip at a recent House Republican leadership meeting. That implicit bipartisan sharing of responsibility for what has become of the House of Representatives was not a popular message for most GOP lawmakers. But it accurately portrays today's situation.

 The "admonishment" of Majority Leader DeLay by the House Ethics Committee recalls, in cloakrooms of both parties, the series of events 15 years ago. Wright's forced resignation as House speaker on ethical charges was followed by lost congressional seats and, five years later, Republicans taking control of the House. The same pattern is devoutly desired by today's Democrats -- beginning with DeLay's demise.

 This is the criminalization of politics. Democrats appear to be as frustrated by being out of power in the House the past 10 years as the Republicans were four times that long in the wilderness. But it is a process that never seems to end. Sources in the House GOP leadership say ethics charges are contemplated against House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi for allegedly working with outside groups (which she denies) to get DeLay.

 Rep. Newt Gingrich, when still a Republican backbencher, assured me in 1988 that Wright would be forced from the speaker's chair. Although I was skeptical, Wright resigned under pressure in 1989. That same year, Gingrich was elected to the GOP leadership, as minority whip. But he was a marked man, designated for retribution, and was forced out on ethics charges as speaker in 1999.

 Ever since Gingrich's departure, DeLay has been the dominant political personality in both houses of Congress. First as whip and now as majority leader, he has become the most effective enforcer of party discipline in history (resulting in one of his knuckle-rappings by the ethics committee). DeLay runs a tightly ordered House, where conquered Democrats are not offered succor.

 However, what really concentrated Democratic wrath against DeLay was his rough campaign to undo the gerrymander in his home state of Texas after the 2000 census that retained a Democratic-dominated House delegation from an overwhelmingly Republican state. A multi-front war to drive DeLay from office was organized by the House Democratic leadership, the left-wing, another liberal group called CREW and Ronnie Earle, the intensely political Democratic district attorney of Austin. Reporting this with delight were members of the news media, who had been treated with less than tender loving care by DeLay.

 The DeLay campaign has been a frantic combined effort by Democrats. Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, a Democrat on the Ethics Committee, has briefed Pelosi on the supposedly non-partisan panel's process. One of the committee's Republicans, Rep. Judy Biggert, has received more than 3,000 anti-DeLay messages generated by Bucks County (Pa.) Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick, running in a closely contested district, is one of many Republican candidates being pressured to send back DeLay's $5,000 contributions. 

 Republican House members assumed their colleagues would block charges against DeLay, but "The Hammer's" smash-mouth tactics even make some Republican enemies. Rep. Joel Hefley, a nine-term congressman from Colorado who heads the Ethics Committee, is no friend of DeLay and is still aggravated about not becoming Armed Services Committee chairman. To the amazement of the Republican conference, the Ethics Committee found unanimously against DeLay on lesser charges, including attending a golf tournament sponsored by energy companies.

 "With DeLay's wings clipped, he will fall to earth," a Republican power broker told me. But that is not the prevailing view inside the House Republican conference, whose members are grateful for his leadership, his cash contributions and his Texas coup that guarantees two more years of a Republican House majority. DeLay, lacking Gingrich's egotistical exuberance, is willing to stay off television and work outside the spotlight. That makes him a harder target to hit than Gingrich, and in the end a more dangerous enemy for Democrats.

 Just before Wright and Gingrich fell, prominent supporters of each told me they had lost confidence. No such winds are blowing against DeLay, only outrage against Nancy Pelosi and the normally less partisan Democratic whip, Steny Hoyer. More House Wars await in 2005.