National Politics • Tom DeLay
He has a message for GOP members of the U.S. House: Forty lashes if you stray.
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THE NEXT TIME YOU HIRE SOMEONE to exterminate roaches from your home, imagine him as the majority whip of the United States House of Representatives. For customers of Albo Pest Control in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land a dozen years ago, the scenario came true. In fact, the second career of Tom DeLay, Albo’s former owner, has a lot in common with the first. Today his job is the political extermination of liberalism, and he performs it with such enthusiasm that even the graphic title of whip has been deemed insufficient to describe his efforts. Among Washington’s inside-the-Beltway crowd, DeLay is known as the Hammer.
The epithet does not trouble him. “It’s kind of fun,” he said, grinning. “I’m just a very gentle guy.” The grin broadened, advancing up his face to the crinkled corners of his eyes. He lounged deeper into an overstuffed chair in a windowless sitting room on the east side of the Capitol, a comfortable pose for a politician who is entirely comfortable with who he is. DeLay knows that a little bit of legend can go a long way in a profession whose most famous consultant—a fellow named Machiavelli—once said that it was better to be feared than loved.
If Speaker Newt Gingrich is the visionary of the Republican revolution and majority leader Dick Armey is the brains, Tom DeLay is the muscle. He is both a hard-line conservative and a first-rate practical politician—a combination that, at this particular moment, is all too rare in the Republican party. In a leadership triumvirate whose other two members are former college professors, DeLay provides the ordinariness that is the heart and soul of the House. Even his appearance is ordinary: average height and weight, a face that looks a little younger than his 49 years, a minimum of distinguishing gestures and inflections, and down-to-earth concerns. (During George W. Bush’s first visit to Washington as Texas governor in 1995, when Congress was immersed in titanic battles over the Contract With America, DeLay rushed up to him in the halls of the Capitol with a suggestion of whom Bush should appoint to the state pest control regulatory board.) One could argue whether the U.S. Senate still lives up to its venerable description as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” but no one would attempt to make such a lofty claim for the body in which DeLay serves. Greatness is not its constitutional purpose. Its size (435 seats) and two-year election cycle mean most of its members will spend their entire careers in anonymity, their horizons limited by the next record vote and the next reelection campaign. That’s where DeLay comes in. His goals as whip are to get the votes needed to pass the ambitious GOP legislative agenda in the House and to get the money necessary to reelect Republicans—and he did not acquire his nickname by failing. If the GOP retains control of the House this year, no one will deserve more credit than the Hammer.
DeLay has shepherded just about the entire Republican wish list through the House. His office distributes a summary of legislative accomplishments (“The Remarkable Republican Congress”) that covers thirteen pages. The list indeed amounts to a political revolution: a balanced budget, tough welfare reform, the biggest cut in federal spending since World War II, relief from federal regulations for owners of property and small businesses, a crackdown on medicare spending, tax credits for families with children, curbs on personal injury lawsuits, congressional reforms (staff reductions, bans on gifts, no exemptions for Congress from federal laws), line-item veto power for the president—and that’s only about four pages’ worth.
Although the GOP has its first majority in the House since 1954, it is by no means a cinch for DeLay to round up the necessary 218 votes to pass legislation. Of the 236 Republicans, 40 or so are moderates on abortion, the environment, and even some social-spending issues. And he can’t rely on conservative Democrats to provide the swing votes for Republican proposals. “You can count the ones who will vote with us on the fingers of two hands,” DeLay said.
His approach to passing legislation, he explained, is to “grow the vote” as you would a vegetable garden: with lots of nurturing—and an occasional application of poison. He has a whip organization of about forty assistants, each of whom is responsible for getting the votes of five or six members. “We try to find out early if a member has a problem with a bill,” DeLay said, “and we fix it in committee if we can. If that doesn’t work, we emphasize how important the issue is to the big picture. If that doesn’t work, I try to use my personal relationship with a member.” Poison must be used sparingly, but DeLay will withhold a key favor—such as an appointment to a conference committee or authorization for a foreign junket—if a member consistently votes against the leadership. “We have one member who loves to travel abroad,” he said with a thin smile. “We told him that from now on, he can go on his own nickel.” One way or another, Tom DeLay almost always wins.
So why aren’t the Republicans smiling? For one thing, there’s a little matter of checks and balances. Bill Clinton has vetoed some of the Republicans’ most cherished legislation: the balanced budget, tax cuts, medicare. Furthermore, 1996 has not been a great year for Republicans. The economic, regulatory, and reform issues that drove the GOP revolution a year ago have been overshadowed by social issues like abortion, assault weapons, and the proper role of religion in politics. The issues of 1995 highlighted the differences between Republicans and Democrats; the issues of 1996 highlight the differences among Republicans. Internal divisions have taken the steam out of the revolution.
DeLay knows exactly when the GOP lost the momentum. “Our biggest mistake was backing off from the government shutdown,” he said. “We should have stuck it out; our calls were four hundred to five in favor of the shutdown. The worst moment was November 19. I was cooking steaks for five or six members at my condo. The TV was on, and all of a sudden there’s Newt and Dole and the president, and everybody is shaking hands and saying they’ve reached an agreement to reopen the government. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
In exchange for allowing the government to go back to work (by providing temporary funding), the GOP got a promise from the White House to negotiate for a balanced budget. But the handshakes soon turned to finger pointing as the White House and congressional leaders squabbled over who had agreed to what. The Republicans refused to provide temporary funding and the government shut down again. Both sides looked petty and silly, but Clinton had the ability to get on the evening news every night and state his case. By early January, polls showed that the public preferred the president’s handling of the crisis by a margin of more than two to one, and Senate Republicans were growing weary of the confrontation. DeLay wanted to fight on—“Screw the Senate. It’s time for all-out war,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying during a Republican leadership caucus—but Gingrich had had enough too: The government reopened for good on January 6. DeLay believes that the Republicans would still have Clinton on the run had they refused to give in back in November.
While the White House has cut down on the House Republicans’ legislative success, no such obstacle has stood in the way of DeLay’s fundraising for his GOP colleagues. The Hammer has come down hard, for instance, on lobbyists who control the contributions of political action committees (PACs), especially business lobbyists who have been in the habit of giving to Democrats. “We keep a very close eye on the money,” he told me. He keeps at hand a GOP compilation that lists contributions by the four hundred largest PACs to Republicans and Democrats and evaluates each PAC as “friendly” or “unfriendly.” And he makes a point of showing lobbyists where their PAC ranks. This is not exactly the sort of procedure that you read about in civics textbooks, but DeLay offers no apology for his tactics. His defense—actually, it’s more of an attack—is that there can be no lasting revolution in policy unless there is also a revolution in fundraising.
“There’s been a Democratic mind-set in this town for forty years,” he said. “Lobbyists were Democrats because they had to be Democrats to succeed. Do you think they want us to be in power? They’re telling their organizations, ‘We’d better hedge our bets. Democrats might take back the House.’” Apparently lobbyists are getting the message. “Business money used to be sixty-forty Democratic,” said DeLay. “We’ve switched it to sixty-forty Republican.” And those who hold fast to their old Democratic loyalties run the risk of losing their jobs; DeLay has been known to call a lobbyist’s boss to complain. “We don’t like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution,” DeLay told the Washington Post last year. “We know who they are. The word is out.”
DeLay’s emergence as one of the most powerful politicians in Washington and the key figure in the GOP’s battle to hold the House comes as something of a surprise to old hands at the Texas Capitol. A state House member for three terms before he went to Congress, DeLay is remembered as a congenial, middle-of-the-pack legislator whose chief interest was trucking deregulation. He wasn’t particularly partisan; his own memory of the time is that aside from the handful of liberals who sat together on the floor in an area called Red Square, “there wasn’t a dime’s difference between Democrats and Republicans.” He was a regular on the hunting trips and golf outings where lawmakers got to know each other, and he learned the importance of personal relationships. By the time he left, he was a good one-on-one politician and an accurate judge of how votes would come out.
Those skills are not enough to make you a star in Austin, where the Speaker and a few veteran committee chairs run the show, but Washington is a different story. The House is so unwieldy, its membership spread out in a quarter mile of office buildings across the street from the Capitol, that the leadership is always in need of a gregarious inside operator like DeLay. In 1985 he was the freshman representative on the Republican Committee on Committees, which gave him a chance to gather chits by helping members get the committee assignments they wanted. In his second term he won a plum appointment to the Appropriations Committee, where he was a successful pork-barrel politician ($64 million for the Southwest Freeway bus lane; $50 million for Houston Metro). His conservative ideology drew him to the young turks, led by Newt Gingrich, who were unhappy with the go-along-to-get-along attitude of the old-guard leaders, but his ambition drew him to the leadership. In 1989 he had to choose, and he chose wrong. Minority Whip Dick Cheney left the House to become Secretary of Defense, and in the race to pick his successor, DeLay ran the campaign of Gingrich’s old-guard opponent, Illinois congressman Edward Madigan. Gingrich won, 84–82. “I had to start over,” recalled DeLay. “I was at the bottom.”
Looking around for a way to recover, he decided to run for chairman of the Republican Study Committee. It had been founded in the seventies as a protest vehicle for conservatives who regarded Richard Nixon as too friendly to big government, but it had lost its ideological zeal and had turned into a research group. DeLay used his connections—he was friendly with the executive director of the committee—to win the election handily. Meanwhile, conservatives in and out of the House were looking for someone to lead the opposition to another GOP president they regarded as too friendly to big government: George Bush. DeLay was the right person in the right place at the right time, and after he fought Bush’s 1990 tax increase, his conservative credentials were impeccable. He moved up to a minor leadership position in 1992, and after the Republicans captured the House in 1994, he defeated Gingrich’s closest ally, Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, to become whip.
Such a career suggests that DeLay is less of a pure ideologue than he is often portrayed to be. When the Legislature was nonconfrontational, he was nonconfrontational; when the Republican leadership in Congress was accommodationist, he was accommodationist; when the conservative tide rolled across the House and the nation, he rode it. He has the knack for politics to get ahead in almost any circumstance.
But there is one issue on which the former pesticide sprayer is as hard-line and unyielding as anybody in American politics: the environment. When I brought it up, he suddenly let go of his amiable, relaxed mood, pulled himself out of his lounging position onto the edge of his seat cushion, and reached down to hitch up his trousers, as if to gird himself for battle. “Now, you’re going to think I’m crazy,” he said. “I read a book by Elizabeth Whelan, called Toxic Terror. She tells how the modern environmental movement started with protests against nuclear testing. They were very successful, raised lots of money, but after the test-ban treaty, they had nowhere to go. Then came Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, about DDT. That became the next cause. But there is no scientific evidence in the book. I refuse to base environmental policy on political motives or bad science.”
He was rolling now. “When we passed the Clean Air Act during the Bush administration, there was a forty-to-fifty-billion-dollar program for acid rain in the bill. The government was winding up a ten-year study with a hundred scientists, a hundred million dollars, to study acid rain. We said, wait for the study. But the bill passed before the scientific work was done. The EPA will tell you that the study would have shown that there is no acid rain.
“Do you know about the lakes in the Northeast?” he asked.
I said that I did; I had been to the Adirondack Mountains in New York State last summer, and the guidebook I used was full of references to lakes that had been rendered sterile by acid rain.
“The lakes are not acidified,” DeLay insisted. “It rains a lot up there, and the water comes down through the forest floor, through the minerals in the soil. That’s where the acid comes from. You don’t need billions of dollars to fix the problem. Just sprinkle a little lime to neutralize the acid.”
Ah, yes. I remembered my high school chemistry: An acid plus a base yields a salt.
“The Democrats accuse us of rolling back fifty years of environmental laws,” he continued. “We haven’t rolled back one.”
DeLay had one more base to touch: global warming. “It’s the arrogance of man to think that man can change the climate of the world,” he said. “Only nature can change the climate. A volcano, for instance.”
His own eruption past, DeLay sank back into the comfort of his chair. I didn’t think he was crazy. I did think he had lost one of the qualities that you want a political leader to have: a basic degree of respect for his opponents. Of course, most Democrats have exactly the same attitude about DeLay and the conservative Republicans. You have to believe, in a democracy, that the other side is capable of—and worthy of—governing. But that does not seem to be a commonly held belief in Washington these days.
In any case, DeLay is determined to see that the Democrats don’t get the chance. “We’re in great shape for the election,” he told me. “At worst we’re five points down on the generic question, Would you vote Republican or Democrat for Congress? We were fourteen points down at this point in ’92 and we gained seats. We were ten points down in ’94 and we took the Congress.” He grinned, all the way to his eyes again. “We’re right where we want to be.”