Politics & Policy

Don’T Delay, Delay

Since 1994 Tom DeLay has led the Republican House majority ably and loyally. Now he needs to perform yet another act of service by not seeking to return as majority leader.

We have been among DeLay’s staunchest defenders in his battle with Ronnie Earle. The Texas prosecutor has brought a flimsy, political case against DeLay. DeLay appears to have done nothing more sinful than end a Democratic gerrymander of his Republican state. Letting Earle end DeLay’s career in the House leadership would have rewarded a Democratic political power play.

The equities in the Abramoff case are different. First, assuming that DeLay is cleared in Texas, it would be a substantial political risk for Republicans to bring DeLay back to the leadership while the Abramoff cloud is hanging over him, as it appears it will for some time to come. Why would they want to carry on under a formerly former majority leader, only to face the possibility of having to remove him from leadership yet again should he be further implicated in the Abramoff mess?

The Abramoff case is not the figment of a fevered partisan prosecutor’s imagination. People have pled guilty to crimes–not just Abramoff, but former DeLay aide and fellow Abramoff rip-off-artist Michael Scanlon. The allegations touch on other former DeLay staffers, Ed Buckham and Tony Rudy. It might be that DeLay was unaware of all the greedy, and perhaps criminal, practices swirling around him, but his colleagues can be forgiven for wanting to take a “wait and see” attitude.

“Republicans underestimate

the potential impact of the Abramoff

scandal at their peril.”

DeLay has been on the kind of Abramoff-funded trips that are mentioned in the plea agreement. A Washington Post story a few days ago detailed how $1 million from a Russian oil interest represented by Abramoff made it into the coffer of a DeLay nonprofit. The Post reports that Buckham, who had previously been DeLay’s chief of staff, told the president of the nonprofit that the donation was meant to influence DeLay’s vote on an International Monetary Fund bailout for Russia. The nonprofit paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to Buckham’s lobbying firm, which in turn paid DeLay’s wife $3,200 a month for three years for supposedly compiling a list of lawmakers’ favorite charities (a job most people could do in a week).

Republicans underestimate the potential impact of the Abramoff scandal at their peril. One top Republican strategist told us, “There are two types of House Republicans: Those who are in trouble, and those who don’t know it yet.” Republicans have to do more, rather than less, to control the damage.

DeLay can do his part by forswearing any ambition to return to the leadership until this matter is resolved. It may be necessary for the House Republican Conference to discipline other of its members–we have Rep. Bob Ney (R., Ohio) in particular in mind–as evidence of their involvement with Abramoff dictates. (Of course, it is also possible that Justice-department prosecutors have overreached, and will have a problem establishing that typical Washington influence peddling crossed the line into criminality.) Finally, Republicans should embrace a tough reform package that tightens up on lobbying disclosure and cracks down on the earmarked spending that is bait for corrupting lobbyists. A majority that deserves to stay a majority must demonstrate that it is capable of policing itself.

We hope Delay clears his name, and it is notable that he wasn’t explicitly referred to in the plea agreement. The winds frequently shift in Washington and it might be that a year or two from now–leadership elections are held every two years–a clearly innocent DeLay will be poised for a comeback. It will certainly help earn the goodwill of his colleagues if he realizes the wisdom of remaining, for now, a backbencher.

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