Politics & Policy

Tom’S Travails

The Tom DeLay drumbeat goes on. So desperate are the New York Times and Washington Post for DeLay copy that they have begun recycling old stories on their front pages. Michael Isikoff is reduced to reporting hearsay from Jack Abramoff’s lunches. And Old Unreliable, Rep. Chris Shays, has predictably called for DeLay’s ouster, making him once again a harbinger for the media of “dissension in the GOP ranks.” There’s little sign that the Majority Leader’s agony will end soon.

Conservatives must be willing to make cold-blooded calculations about their leaders, since the cause is bigger than any one man. But DeLay has not committed any crimes or ethics violations that merit his ouster. Nor has his effectiveness been so diminished that the Republican caucus would be better off without him–even if he has sustained damage from the drip-drip of allegations against him.

The chief reason the Democrats and the press are ganging up on DeLay is obvious: He has been an effective leader of the House Republican majority, and they hope to do damage to the GOP caucus and agenda by taking him out, on the model of former Speaker Newt Gingrich. After all, many of the offenses DeLay is being accused of–taking foreign trips funded by outside groups, attending events with lobbyists–are committed by every congressman on Capitol Hill.

There are four sets of allegations against DeLay, and it is worth going through each one, since the political campaign against DeLay depends on piling up as many charges as possible to create the impression of irredeemable corruption. The first has to do with foreign trips.

One was a trip to Seoul funded by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, a group that registered as a foreign agent days before the trip. It is against House rules to accept trips from a registered foreign agent. But there was no way for DeLay to know the group had registered, and other Republicans and Democrats–including a Nancy Pelosi staffer–had gone on similar trips sponsored by the group. DeLay disclosed the trip to the Ethics Committee, a sign he believed it was within the rules.

Two other trips, including one to Russia, came courtesy of a conservative outfit called the National Center for Public Policy Research. It appears that the bills for these travels were indirectly picked up by gambling interests or other unsavory characters associated with the disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who accompanied DeLay on the trips. It’s against the rules for a congressman to accept trips paid for by a lobbyist. But DeLay says he thought the center really was paying for the trips. It is unfair for journalists to pick through every detail of the financing of these trips years later, then imply that DeLay should have been known at the time all the details that their later investigations uncover.

The second set of allegations was handled by the House Ethics Committee last year. The committee dismissed two charges made by outgoing Democratic representative Chris Bell having to do with DeLay’s relationship with an energy company called Westar and his staff’s contacting of the Federal Aviation Administration when Texas Democrats were fleeing the state by air to avoid voting on a redistricting plan. It also dismissed a charge having to do with DeLay’s strong-arming of Republican representative Nick Smith to try to get him to vote for the prescription-drug bill. The committee did warn DeLay to be more careful, the “admonishment” that has played in the media as an official sanction, which it wasn’t.

“DeLay’s supporters cringe

to see sleazy insiders like

Jack Abramoff profiting from

their relationship with him.”

The third set involves a case in Texas. A Democratic prosecutor has indicted associates of DeLay for alleged fundraising abuses related to a PAC founded by DeLay, Texans for a Republican Majority. The prosecutor has a reputation for politicized indictments, including a meritless one years ago against Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. No evidence presented at trial has directly tied DeLay to any of the alleged illegal practices at the PAC, which involved funneling corporate contributions to Texas legislative candidates in violation of state campaign-finance law.

Finally, thanks to a recycled New York Times story last week, a controversy has erupted around payments to DeLay’s wife and daughter from his political machine. Having relatives on the payroll, however, is not an unusual Capitol Hill practice, and is considered ethical so long as they do real jobs. There’s no suggestion that Delay’s wife and his daughter–who runs his congressional campaigns–are being paid for no-show jobs.

Conservative groups have rallied around DeLay, as they should when he is being unfairly attacked. But the Majority Leader should know that even if conservatives reject the Democratic effort to smear and oust him, they are disillusioned to find Republican leaders now so comfortable with the perks of power. You can always choose your friends, and DeLay’s supporters cringe to see sleazy insiders like Jack Abramoff profiting from their relationship with him. It is notable that DeLay’s lobbying of Representative Smith was part of an effort to pass a massive new entitlement that not too long ago would have turned DeLay’s stomach.

By all means, let’s defend Tom DeLay, but let’s also hope that we will see more of the old conservative insurgent Tom DeLay we used to know.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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