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.