October 02, 2004
Denting DeLay?

With the admonishment of the Ethics Committee in the case of the Nick Smith arm-twisting and with the Bell complaint still pending, Democrats are putting the pressure on Tom DeLay.

House Democrats, emboldened by the ethics committee's public rebuke of GOP leader Tom DeLay, went on a blistering offensive Friday, demanding a full investigation into the "stench of corruption" surrounding the Texas Republican.

While Republicans rallied around their leader and political observers weighed the rebuke's impact, Democrats pounced as they sensed a turn of momentum against DeLay.

"The ethical cloud surrounding Tom DeLay has quickly grown into a thunderstorm," said U.S. Rep. Chris Bell, a Houston Democrat whose separate ethics complaint against DeLay has been pending since mid-June. "The stench of corruption emanating from Mr. DeLay and his associates has become too pungent to ignore any longer -- even in Washington."

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, once steadfast in her refusal to address complaints against DeLay, found her voice after the ethics committee admonished DeLay late Thursday for offering a political favor in return for a representative's vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill.

"The rebuke of Tom DeLay by the ethics committee is yet another ethical cloud hanging over the Capitol," said Pelosi, D-Calif. "Mr. DeLay's offer to trade political support for a vote for the shameful Medicare prescription drug bill is completely inappropriate."


Thursday's rebuke gives Democrats a "beachhead" for criticism of DeLay that, coupled with the Travis County grand jury investigation and Bell's complaint, could become a growing distraction, said Ross K. Baker, political science professor at Rutgers University.

"I think (the noose) is tightening. I don't think it's cutting off his oxygen supply yet, but I think it has the potential to do that," said Baker, author of "House and Senate," used in college government courses.

"This is how it starts. This is how it started with Jim Wright; this is how it started with Newt Gingrich," he said. "Once a couple of solid blows are landed, the temptation for the majority leader's adversaries is to really start raining on the punches."


Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar for the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute, said he believed the relatively mild rebuke fit the infraction. Still, he said, the action could have a greater consequence -- forcing the ethics committee to act on Bell's 3 1/2-month-old complaint.

"If the ethics committee says, after all of this, that we are not going to investigate -- or worse deadlocks on a partisan vote -- then I think that reaches a level of embarrassment that even the ethics committee can't tolerate," Ornstein said.

The Chron has some pretty tame by comparison coverage, with no analysis of how things might play out. MSNBC picks up that ball.

"A lot of members on Capitol Hill believe in the concept of 'three strikes, you're out,' " said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate of public ethics and president of Democracy 21. "And Mr. DeLay has two strikes and a third case pending."

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who often writes about congressional ethics, said, "I think the drip, drip, drip may create a problem for him now."


The liberal Campaign for America's Future called on Republicans to oust DeLay from this leadership post, and several groups — including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — demanded that the ethics committee aggressively pursue the pending complaint, filed in June by Rep. Chris Bell (D-Tex.).

Some Democrats say DeLay's ethics battles already are making him less potent on the campaign trail. A recent New Orleans Times-Picayune article on GOP House candidate Billy Tauzin III was headlined "DeLay's stumping for Tauzin is scaled back after scandal." DeLay staffers denied the suggestion and said he is campaigning for Republican House nominees this year at least as much as he did in 2002.

Nonetheless, said George Washington University public affairs professor Stephen Hess, the accumulation of accusations should trouble DeLay's friends because "the history of these things is that eventually it does wear down" a politician's support. DeLay has survived past storms, Hess said, partly because he "has been a shrewd enough leader to have many if not most of his legislative constituents beholden to him."

It was just that strategy that led to this week's admonishment.

Tim Noah thinks the that Ethics Committee didn't go far enough in its admonishments.

The big news is that Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, admitted that he offered to endorse Smith's son Brad, who was running for Congress at the time, in exchange for Smith's "yea" vote on the Medicare bill. According to the Ethics Committee—more precisely, its investigative subcommittee—this is a violation of House rules and warrants "public admonishment." But it may warrant a good deal more.

The Ethics Committee wasn't able to find anyone who would admit having mentioned to Smith that his vote was worth $100,000, and Smith (for reasons that are getting clearer) now contradicts his earlier statements and says no bribe—and certainly no $100,000—was ever offered. But DeLay's statement alone is grounds for indictment. United States Code, Title 18, Section 201, "Bribery of public officials and witnesses," states that a bribe can be "anything of value." There's an exception for horse-trading confined wholly to government business—you vote for my bill and I'll vote for yours—because that's constitutionally protected. But endorsing a candidate for office is not government business. There are no House committees that vote on DeLay's endorsements, or Cabinet secretaries who issue them as regulations. DeLay doesn't even have to clear them with the House speaker (who at any rate seems to take orders from DeLay, not the other way around). When DeLay endorses someone, he's speaking for himself and his party.

Would an endorsement by DeLay have been "of value" to Smith? You bet, and not simply because DeLay is a nationally recognized figure in the Republican Party. DeLay is well known to have access to enormous quantities of corporate cash (not all of it necessarily obtained legally). In the current election cycle, his PAC, Americans for a Republican Majority, has given out $775, 278. None of the other so-called "leadership PACs" controlled by members of Congress come close to spending this kind of money. A DeLay endorsement means big bucks. Smith acknowledged to the Ethics Committee this inescapable logical connection (thereby edging toward recanting his recantation) by admitting "he would have associated the offer of an endorsement with willingness to provide financial assistance in the form of contributions to his son's campaign." Well, duh.

The big question, of course, is whether all of this will ultimately cost DeLay at the ballot box. Christianity Today does a brief profile of DeLay and the "ethics cloud" that hangs over his head and does what almost no other media outlet does: they give a quote to Richard Morrison, who says "A lot of Republicans are telling me that while they're still voting for Bush, they say they cannot support DeLay anymore." The Fort Bend/Southwest Sun says "Some of his supporters concede that DeLay is vulnerable, but they are confident he will be re-elected" without naming any of those supporters, then goes on to quote a bunch of local Republicans who all say that the reaction to DeLay's indictments have fallen strictly along partisan lines. They also have a nice quote from (of all people) Mike Fjetland:

The independent Congress candidate Michael Fjetland, running against DeLay, says, "These indictments show that Rep. DeLay has close associates involved in activities that appear to be directed by DeLay himself. If so, it would require he step down as majority leader and Congressional representative of District."
"Unfortunately, the flaw with a political system controlled by one-party, is that Democrats don't prosecute Democrats and Republicans don't prosecute Republicans who step over the legal line. Our founding fathers believed in checks and balances. If it was OK for a Republican DeLay to pursue impeachment of a Democrat President for improper conduct, then it should be OK for a Democrat District Attorney to pursue DeLay and his associates for the same conduct-especially for clear violations of State law."

Weird hyphenations, comma usage, and line breaks as in the original. For all the griping I do about the Chron, they at least have a copy editor and a spellchecker at work most of the time. I've also seen personal pages on Geocities with better layout than this. Sheesh.

By the way, the Morrison campaign notes that it reached its $250,000 fundraising goal for the quarter. That's excellent news, and maybe it means we'll finally see that Morrison TV commercial on the air.

UPDATE: Jeralyn has more.

UPDATE: And still more, from War and Piece and a twofer from Taking on Tom DeLay. Via Byron.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 02, 2004 to Scandalized! | TrackBack

A copy editor and spellchecker at the Chron?

What newspaper are you reading, because it's not the Chron!

This is the newspaper that spelled Howell Raines' name wrong on an op-ed by him in both print and online editions recently.

They do have a pretty good web operation, but let's not give them more credit than they deserve in the other areas.

Posted by: kevin whited on October 2, 2004 2:39 PM

Compared to that Fort Ben Sun article, the Chron is a literary review. My eyes are still crossed.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on October 2, 2004 2:41 PM

kevin - you seem to be following the old lawyer's adage: when you don't have the facts, and you don't have the law, pound the table. Criticizing the grammar and the copy editing is a great distraction; I've done it myself. But in this case, the ploy is awfully transparent. After reading Laura's piece at War and Piece, it's pretty clear DeLay is going down, and for legitimate reasons; it's only a question of when. Will you follow him down?

Posted by: Steve Bates on October 3, 2004 1:20 AM