The Exterminator

How did Tom Delay become the most powerful man in Congress? By trying to squash his enemies—from the president to fellow Republicans who won’t follow the party line.

April 1999By Comments

“THIS ADMINISTRATION,” SAID TOM DELAY, “THEY belong to the Scandal-of-the-Month Club. I just think that there’s more coming.” The last part sounded more like a guarantee than an observation. It was early March, five days after Juanita Broaddrick went on television with the latest accusations against Bill Clinton, and the House majority whip had called from his home in Sugar Land to give me his take on recent developments. The Senate’s verdict of acquittal, the public’s continued support of the president, the pundits’ predictions that Republicans will lose the House, none of these had dampened DeLay’s enthusiasm for bringing down Clinton. Nothing had convinced him that he was on the wrong course. “We will be disagreeing with him on policy,” he said of what lay ahead. “You combine the scandals with policy—all of that manifests itself in the elections.”

Only a weary tone in his voice betrayed that anything was different now. Back in December, DeLay had been supercharged, as if he were plugged into some hidden socket. When it finally dawned on Washington that the House of Representatives was going to impeach the president, the city broke into bedlam. For days I had tried to contact DeLay but couldn’t even get his press secretary on the phone. I didn’t understand why until I went to Washington. It was the eve of the impeachment and the country was about to bomb Iraq—two strangely interrelated crises that had sent the town into a mad scrum. “Welcome to the fun house,” one reporter said when I arrived. Later I heard an aide answer one of the ceaselessly ringing telephones in the Capitol by saying, “Asylum, lunatic speaking.” When I first approached the Hill, I came upon a horde of reporters frozen around Mike Pappas, an obscure New Jersey congressman who was in the process of becoming the latest Republican to declare he’d vote for impeachment. The throng exploded with clacking shutters and flashing strobes. “Let me be clear about this,” Pappas proclaimed. “It is not about sex.” No, of course not: The most potent aphrodisiac in Washington has always been power.

In the office of the majority whip, oblivious to the tableau of disorder around them, DeLay’s staff moved with a remarkable singularity of purpose. A contained fury gripped the office. (“There’s this Vulcan mind-meld that exists between us,” Mike Scanlon, DeLay’s press secretary, said later.) At the epicenter of the tumult, behind a polished wooden desk, sat DeLay. He was feeling utterly confident of Clinton’s downfall. “Looks like the coffin’s nailed shut,” he said. Just then his chief of staff stuck her head into the office. “The Speaker needs to talk to you,” she said.

“Which Speaker?” asked DeLay. Most likely it wasn’t Newt Gingrich, who had already announced he was leaving Congress. DeLay was much closer to Bob Livingston, who had just been elected to replace Gingrich.

“Elect,” she said, indicating that it was Livingston.

“Right now?” asked DeLay, puzzled.

I stepped outside. Almost immediately, DeLay came charging out of his office, putting on his coat. Scanlon asked if we might go to the Rayburn Building with him, but DeLay blew up at the suggestion. “Frankly, I need to be thinking about all this,” he spat out. Hours later, the reason for DeLay’s abrupt departure became clear when Livingston publicly admitted to having had multiple extramarital affairs. The storm was careening off on unanticipated tangents, bruising souls for whom its force had not been intended. Watching the roiling disturbance, I saw DeLay emerge as the most powerful Republican in Washington. Except for him, Clinton would never have been impeached—but because of his success, Republicans have spent the weeks after Clinton’s acquittal arguing over whether they did the right thing.

THE OFFICE OF MAJORITY WHIP HAS not typically been the pivot around which Washington turns, but DeLay has made it so by legislative skill, among other talents. Beltway insiders have wildly disparate opinions about DeLay but all agree on one thing: He is the most effective whip anyone has seen. “My time on the Hill goes back to 1964,” said moderate Republican Sherwood Boehlert of New York. “In all those years, I have never seen a person succeed at his job as well as Tom DeLay. I say that as a person who frequently disagrees with him.”

The reason for DeLay’s success as a politician is not immediately apparent. He is not particularly handsome, particularly charismatic, or particularly eloquent. But he is particularly dogged. “A time came when Tom and I were running for chairman of the Republican Study Committee,” majority leader Dick Armey told me. “It was the only time we’ve gone head-to-head. I thought I was doing great, but Tom won hands down. He knew how to sew things up, how to glide back and forth between one back room and another, far better than I did.” DeLay is highly competitive, a devout Baptist, and partisan to the core. He started out a fiscal conservative but has become close to the Christian right. He divides the world into friends and enemies, and he’s famous for intemperate remarks that reflect his polarized worldview. “We’re going to only fund those programs we want to fund,” he announced during the budget impasse of 1995. “We’re in charge. We don’t have to negotiate with the Senate. We don’t have to negotiate with the Democrats.”

DeLay has a reputation for arm twisting, but it’s impossible to unite several hundred elected officials with sizable egos just by running roughshod over them all of the time. DeLay has other means of building consensus. “He knows every member,” said Tom Loeffler, a former congressman from San Antonio. “He knows the demographics of their district, he knows what committees they serve on, he knows their wants and needs.” When Kay Granger of Fort Worth arrived in Washington in 1996, DeLay gave her a desk and loaned her a staff member until she got settled. Essentially, he runs the whip’s office like a service organization. Whatever the members need, he gets. “If you need a golf game, we help you get on a course,” explained Scanlon. “If you need reservations somewhere, we find them. If you have a problem with a vote, we fix it. If you need a fundraiser, we do it for you.”

The whip’s quarters are the boiler room of politics—it’s where the dirty work gets done. DeLay’s personal office, on the first floor of the Capitol, has deep blue walls and silk-covered furniture. Tables display miniature replicas of his favorite golf holes, such as Amen Corner at Augusta National. A pair of marble tablets bearing the Ten Commandments stand on a windowsill, and around the room are coiled half a dozen bullwhips—symbols of his political trade. Here he goes about the business of finding out how GOP members are going to vote and persuading recalcitrant colleagues to follow the party line. He counts votes by handing out slips marked “No, Leaning No, Undecided, Leaning Yes, Yes” to the members who serve as his deputy and assistant whips, with the House Republican Conference’s summary of the bill printed on the back. The whip team quizzes other members about their intentions and fills out a straw ballot for every Republican. To ensure that his reach extends deep into the membership, DeLay has recruited an unusually large whip team, inviting 65 other members to serve on it. Becoming part of his organization is a means of getting ahead. “I feel I have an advantage in terms of information and in terms of getting to know other people,” said Granger, who became an assistant whip as a freshman. In a town that revolves around information, other members have learned to rely on DeLay’s cronies to stay in the loop. DeLay also keeps secrets well: “I don’t mention other members by name,” he said, citing one of the rules he lives by. Because of these habits, fellow Republicans have come to trust him as a person they can be frank with.

If a vote count comes up short, DeLay will try to tinker with a bill to win converts. If he can’t please enough reluctant members, he starts pressuring them. Early on, DeLay acquired a reputation as a bully. During one vote, he yelled so loudly at Mark Souder of Indiana that another member had to gavel him quiet. But he’s also capable of a more refined approach. “He knows how to ask for a vote,” said Loeffler. “What you do is you explain that the vote is very important and that you need the person.” When I asked DeLay how he changes people’s mind, he said, “I tell them how I feel. I’m honest with them. I never ask a member to vote against his conscience or his district. Of course I also have to know him and his district well enough to know when somebody is trying to jerk me around.” Moderate Republicans complain that he uses the whip’s office for ideological purposes, a charge DeLay openly admits to. “I’m guilty,” he told The New Republic. “I admit it. I’m not just there to be whip. I’m there to advance an agenda. And I win.”

TO UNDERSTAND DELAY’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, it helps to consider where he comes from. His hometown of Sugar Land lies in Fort Bend County, twenty miles southwest of Houston. Driving there, I passed an eternal flatness, then a swath of luxury homes, another eternity of flatness, then another swath of houses, and so on. Over the past decade, Fort Bend has become the site of more master-planned communities than any county in the nation. DeLay represents the rise to political prominence of the American suburb.

Sugar Land started out as a colossal plantation. Imperial Sugar’s refinery still towers over town; at night, the company’s name glows steadily in blue, while the words “Pure Cane” blink on and off in red. Decades ago, Imperial sold off various properties to the state, and today signs on all routes leading out of town carry a warning: “Prison Area. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” At the same time, the county’s average household income is $66,956, compared with a national average of $45,780. Forty-five percent of the households consist of married couples with children, compared with the national average of 26 percent. Sometimes Sugar Land’s affluence gives people who live there a narrow view of the world. Three years ago, for example, DeLay declared there was no need to raise America’s minimum wage because “working families trying to get by on $4.25 an hour don’t really exist.”

Born in Laredo, DeLay grew up mostly in Venezuela, where his father worked as a drilling contractor. The family returned to Texas while he was in high school. After graduating from the University of Houston, DeLay bought Albo Pest Control. Unhappy encounters with government pesticide regulations led him to buy a how-to book on campaigns and run for the Texas Legislature in 1978. (DeLay hasn’t forgotten his experience at Albo: He has referred to the Environmental Protection Agency as the Gestapo and has tried to dismantle its enforcement powers.) The first Republican elected to the Legislature from the Fort Bend district this century, DeLay found himself in a House where Republicans had only 23 of 150 members. To get anything accomplished, he had to work with people who did not share his beliefs, and in those days he did so easily. His big issue was transportation, especially the deregulation of the trucking industry. DeLay’s avid free-market philosophy endeared him to the business community. “What Tom advocates is letting the market allocate goods and services,” said Jim Gustafson, a commercial real estate owner and longtime DeLay supporter. “I don’t mean to say government isn’t necessary. But you shouldn’t have politicians deciding everything.” Around this time, Houston attorney Corwin Teltschik and his wife, Carolyn, moved out to Fort Bend and became an integral part of his fundraising apparatus. Michael Stevens, a Houston developer, also became a backer. When DeLay decided to run for Congress in 1984, the aid of businessmen like these helped immensely. DeLay’s timing was impeccable: Ronald Reagan was reelected in a landslide that year, and he carried GOP candidates into office with him. Among those who rode in on his coattails was Tom DeLay.

NOTHING OF FORCE HAPPENS IN Washington unless there is a lot of money behind it. The means by which DeLay transformed himself from an unknown freshman into a heavyweight was his talent for raising funds. One of DeLay’s role models, he told me, was Tony Coelho, who had been the majority whip in the eighties. The California Democrat was perhaps the most assiduous fundraiser the Hill has ever seen; he so excelled at the money game that a book was written about his tactics (Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process). Eventually, Coelho’s methods caught up with him, and he left Congress under a cloud.

Like Coelho, DeLay climbed to prominence by amassing a huge war chest and then doling it out to other members. In 1994 Gingrich was hoping to become Speaker (provided the Republicans won control of the House), and DeLay wanted to succeed him as whip. He started a political action committee called Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC). Present at the earliest meetings were Gustafson, Teltschik, and Stevens. Enron’s CEO, Ken Lay, joined later. “We wanted to help Tom elect other Republicans,” said Teltschik, who was named treasurer of ARMPAC. “We wanted to target seats we thought could be won.” To raise enough money, they looked beyond DeLay’s usual sources. “Tom had raised most of his money in his own district,” said Stevens. “But there wasn’t enough there for this. We thought he should tap into downtown sources, into the entire city, state, and nation. And Ken Lay had a longer arm. He had national reach.” The businessmen were eager to vault DeLay into a leadership position because of his antipathy to governmental scrutiny of business. “Tom has very conservative beliefs about regulation,” said Lay. “He has a set of values that I think are important.”

ARMPAC became DeLay’s ladder to Republican leadership. During the 1994 election cycle, the PAC spent $227,601 on 430 candidates. Candidates who received $3,000 or more included Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (one of the House managers in the impeachment trial), Steve Largent of Oklahoma (the former pro football player who rebutted Clinton’s State of the Union address this year), and J. C. Watts, Jr., of Oklahoma (now chairman of the Republican Conference). ARMPAC also raised money that paid for political operatives to assist with campaigns and funded DeLay’s travel from state to state to campaign for GOP candidates.

That November, Republicans won a majority of House seats for the first time in forty years. Gingrich crafted the party’s message but didn’t spend nearly as much time in the trenches as DeLay. “Almost every race you might look at had Tom’s fingerprints on it,” said Bill Paxon, who was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). “He had political operatives in the districts, he went there personally, and he helped raise millions and millions of dollars for our candidates. He also raised money for the NRCC. There’s no doubt in my mind that next to the NRCC itself, the DeLay organization played the biggest role in that election.”

Once Republicans won the majority, DeLay’s fundraising became even more intense. Acquiring control over legislation allowed him to tap into Washington money, and he became famous for the pressure he put on lobbyists to back Republicans. He showed lobbyists a ledger tracking which ones were “friendly” (contributing heavily to Republicans) or “unfriendly” (contributing insufficiently to Republicans or supporting Democrats). Such tactics earned him his nickname, the Hammer. Exploiting a loophole in federal election law, ARMPAC registered a state branch in Virginia, which imposes no limit on corporate contributions to PACs. (R. J. Reynolds, for example, gave the Virginia branch $73,000.) DeLay was then able to give the money to state candidates in an effort to build a farm system of conservative officeholders. The money could also be used to run ads urging voters to support the Republican party and to pay some of ARMPAC’s expenses, thus freeing up more of the PAC’s money for federal candidates.

All this money amplified DeLay’s clout well beyond the traditional scope enjoyed by a congressman. In the last elections, DeLay concentrated his giving in fewer races; ARMPAC gave $379,477 to 113 Republicans. Most candidates received at least $1,000, but some received ten times that amount. ARMPAC enabled DeLay to become a power in his own right. In a California special election, he was emboldened to support Tom Bordonaro, a staunch conservative, when Gingrich, DeLay’s superior in the House GOP organization, was backing another Republican. (Bordonaro made it into the runoff ahead of Gingrich’s choice but lost to a Democrat.) Bucking Gingrich in that race was one of the early signals that DeLay was becoming more powerful than the Speaker.

Gingrich and DeLay had never gotten along well. They are entirely different types: Gingrich is a man of ideas; DeLay is a man of action. “Oil and water,” said a former leadership aide. They first crossed swords in 1989, when Gingrich ran for minority whip; DeLay managed the race of his opponent. When DeLay ran for whip, Gingrich returned the favor by backing Bob Walker of Pennsylvania. But DeLay had a significant edge over Walker: He’d used ARMPAC to give away a lot of money in hopes of gaining a leadership position. Walker had hardly doled out any. “Leadership PACs equal ‘I’m giving you this help, I expect your support,’” Walker told The New Yorker. “I think leadership PACs are a perversion of the system.”

DeLay got off to a roaring start as whip, helping the Republicans enact most of the Contract With America. At the same time, he became a lightning rod for criticism. The Washington Post reported that he had let lobbyists help him write his regulatory moratorium bill. Democrats filed a charge of influence peddling against him for aiding a Mexican cement company whose lobbyist was his brother Randy. DeLay escaped investigation with a favorable procedural ruling by the Ethics Committee chair, Nancy Johnson, who had received contributions from his PAC.

Still unresolved, however, are accusations raised last fall by an Orange businessman named Peter Cloeren, Jr. Federal law restricts gifts from individuals to $1,000 per candidate, but in an affidavit submitted to the Federal Elections Commission, Cloeren stated that DeLay and one of his aides coached him on how to funnel tens of thousands of dollars to Brian Babin of Woodville, a Republican running for the House in 1996. Cloeren owns a company that makes equipment used to manufacture thin sheets of plastic, and I went to visit him a few weeks after my trip to Washington. He has a linebacker’s physique, a bald pate, wire-rimmed glasses, and huge hands. He wore perhaps the largest ring I have ever seen, a giant gold outline of Texas, filled with diamonds. Early in the race, before he met DeLay, Cloeren got his employees to give $37,000 to Babin and repaid them with bonuses. Cloeren, who said his actions had been suggested by Babin, says he didn’t know he was doing anything illegal. They created a paper trail even the dimmest detective could follow.

Cloeren met DeLay for the first time in August 1996. DeLay had flown to Orange for a rally, and afterward, he joined Babin and Cloeren at a country club for lunch. “Congressman DeLay turned to me and told me that Mr. Babin’s campaign needed more money,” Cloeren stated in his affidavit. “. . . I told Congressman DeLay that I could not help Mr. Babin raise more money because I had run out of ‘vehicles.’ Congressman DeLay specifically told me that it would not be a problem for him to find, in his words, ‘additional vehicles.’” Cloeren went on to relate an elaborate story of how a DeLay aide and a political consulting firm told him how to get more money to Babin. Cloeren stated that he had used two PACs and two other political campaigns to accomplish this end. To exceed the maximum contribution limit to a candidate, which Cloeren had already reached in the case of Babin, is a violation of federal law. It is also illegal to mask the true source of a contribution. The unanswered questions are how the recipients of Cloeren’s money knew where it should go—and whether DeLay played any role in those decisions. DeLay’s press secretary vigorously denied the whip was involved. Of the picture Cloeren paints, he said, “Essentially this guy made the whole thing up.”

FBI agents descended on Cloeren’s office to investigate irregularities shortly after the election. Cloeren cooperated, pleaded guilty to the subterfuge involving his employees, paid a total of $400,000 in fines, and was sentenced to probation last June. The same day, U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford pronounced the case closed. Stunned that no action had been taken against the politicians involved, Cloeren filed his affidavit with the Federal Elections Commission. The FEC said it cannot comment on investigations that are not closed.

LAST NOVEMBER, WHEN REPUBLICANS lost five seats in the midterm elections, Newt Gingrich announced that he was stepping down. Conservatives rallied around DeLay, but he did not run for Speaker. His press secretary said that was because DeLay feels he is meant to be whip. Other Republicans suggested that DeLay was too controversial to serve as the party’s leader. So DeLay became Speaker-by-proxy instead: With his backing, Bob Livingston was elected. At that point, it was clear to everyone in the House that the most significant figure among them was Tom DeLay.

On the day Livingston confessed to the Republican caucus that he was guilty of marital infidelity, he spent several hours holed up in DeLay’s office. That evening, the Speaker-unelect issued a statement to the press. DeLay was one of the last figures to emerge from a Republican caucus after the news broke. I tagged along as he quick-stepped up a flight of stairs surrounded by reporters. DeLay’s face wore a look of dismayed wrath. “How do you feel about this?” I asked. “Sick,” he answered. Scanlon intervened then, heading off any further discussion. “No questions! No questions!” he started yelling. “A little personal time!”

DeLay rode in his navy-blue Suburban over to Livingston’s office the next evening, and they had a private talk. The following morning, Livingston announced to the country that he would resign, then called for President Clinton to do the same. DeLay’s eyes misted as he praised Livingston to the House, but he immediately made his next move: the election of Dennis Hastert of Illinois. It was sewn up within hours. Hastert had never held a leadership position and was a total stranger to the American public. But he was no stranger to DeLay; he was the chief deputy whip and shared DeLay’s chambers. Hastert’s miraculous elevation from obscurity made DeLay’s role as kingmaker plain.

DELAY’S CENTRAL ROLE WAS EQUALLY plain during the impeachment fight. Long before the nation ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, DeLay had started looking for offenses that might help him remove others from office, and in his mind it seems the greatest sin was being a liberal. In 1997, for instance, he urged the House to remove federal judges whose decisions were anathema to conservatives.

Although he maintained he wasn’t lobbying members to impeach Clinton (“We’re not whipping this,” he told me. “It’s a vote of conscience”), DeLay handed out black binders presenting his side of the case, issued statements announcing where he stood, and posted comments on his Web site. For Republicans, this was tantamount to getting whipped. “I had no lobbying from DeLay on this issue,” said moderate Sherwood Boehlert. “But I couldn’t escape his view. Every time I picked up the newspaper or turned on the television or the radio, I would hear his opinion on the matter.” DeLay’s tactics constituted a powerful incentive to get in line with the leadership, and eventually just about everyone did.

When we spoke, I asked DeLay why he opposed Clinton so vehemently. “This is very important to me,” he said. “I think Bill Clinton is the representative of the demoralization of America during my generation.” He termed the Juanita Broaddrick scandal just one of many to come. “When we declassify the investigation into selling technology to China, I think people are going to recognize that a person like this president is dangerous. Those who jumped off the cliff with him will suffer politically. Starting with Al Gore.” DeLay must also have believed that going after the president was good politics. After the Senate voted to acquit, however, the National Republican Congressional Committee was $3.5 million in debt, polls showed that the Republicans were in danger of losing the House in the 2000 elections, GOP House members were meeting to chart their future, and moderates were saying “I told you so.” “Providing red meat for the base ensures that our Southern conservatives win by bigger margins,” said Boehlert, “but I don’t think it’s the way to keep a Republican majority.”

DeLay himself is conceding no mistakes. “I would have liked to have seen the managers be able to present the case as they saw it,” he told me. “So many Senators, particularly Democrats, had their mind made up before the House even impeached him. The oath they took to be impartial was a joke to them.” Despite an almost daily drumbeat of stories to the contrary, he saw absolutely no need for the party to become one iota less conservative. “No, no, no,” he said. “We should never act like Democrats. The Democrats are dreaming false dreams. They don’t understand what it means to do what’s right.”

Related Content