The son of a drilling contractor, Tom DeLay spent much of his youth among the oil fields of Venezuela. Ever since earning a degree in biology from the University of Houston, DeLay has portrayed himself as a scientist and environmental expert. His clearest application of this expertise, however, was in the realm of killing things: From 1973-84, DeLay operated a Houston-area exterminating business. He often says he ran for office partly because of his frustration over EPA regulation of the pesticides used in his trade.
DeLay is a perfect match for the 22nd Congressional District, home to several of the largest polluters in the country. The area includes a Monsanto chemical plant, a BASF chemical plant, a mercury-contaminated Superfund site, and a Dow Chemical plant that is the largest industrial complex in North America. The Gulf Coast of Texas accounts for more than half of the nation's petrochemical production and one-fourth of its oil refining. Notably, Texas contributes a quarter of the nation's toxic waste. On top of that, the Clean Air Act placed Houston in the second-worst category for air pollution in the country, trailing only Los Angeles.
This is the land DeLay has pledged to release from the shackles of environmental regulation. He's voted against bills to reduce airborne toxic emissions and to give assistance to communities with contaminated groundwater. He's even tried to stifle "right to know" provisions that enable citizens to find out what dangerous chemicals are being released by local industries. Small wonder that in 1995 DeLay was the top House recipient of PAC money from interests seeking to avoid liability for toxic cleanups, with $106,171 in contributions.
DeLay's move into the GOP leadership has pushed his anti-environmental crusade to the forefront of the Republican agenda. In his first two weeks as whip, DeLay tried to repeal the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act -- widely seen as one of President Bush's most significant accomplishments. He also pushed legislation cutting the EPA's budget by 32 percent and prohibiting its enforcement of standards for vehicle emissions, toxic discharges by petroleum refineries, and arsenic in drinking water. In December 1994, DeLay formed Project Relief, a coalition of industry lobbyists whom he invited to craft the moratorium on federal regulation passed by the House two months later. Tellingly, the 115 PACs associated with Project Relief lobbyists had given more than $10 million to House candidates in 1993-94, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group.
DeLay's fundraising ability has powered his rise to the GOP leadership. By his own count, he raised $2 million for GOP candidates, especially freshmen, in the 1994 election. In turn, the freshmen overwhelmingly supported his bid to become majority whip, even over the opposition of Gingrich, who supported the more moderate Bob Walker (R-Pa.).
"I worked harder than anybody else," DeLay said. "I raised more money than anybody else. I was smarter than anybody else...Once I sink my teeth into something, I don't turn loose until I win." In the budget battle with Clinton, for example, DeLay led the dissident freshmen who initially bucked Gingrich's command, arguing against any compromise with the president and extending the government shutdown. While DeLay didn't win that battle, his extreme tenacity leads many on the Hill to believe that if Gingrich's speakership unravels, DeLay, rather than the milder Majority Leader Dick Armey, will take his place.
Nicknamed "the Hammer" for his fundraising tactics, DeLay has been explicit in spelling out the new rules of the game in the GOP Congress. "He told us it's a new day now," recalls one lobbyist. "We were all going to hire Republican lobbyists, and our PACs were going to give the money to Republican candidates. They were going to take names and keep score."
Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, says, "It's easy enough to say, 'Aw, they all do that.' But they don't. DeLay was essentially telling lobbyists, 'If your PACs give money to Democrats, if you even employ Democrats, you're going to be denied access.' That's completely unethical."
As much as DeLay enjoys throwing his weight around in Washington, he knows how to play Texas hardball as well. And no one has benefited more from DeLay's clout than his younger brother, Randy. In at least four instances since 1995, Tom DeLay has pushed legislation or pressured federal agencies on issues that benefited interests for whom Randy was a paid lobbyist. If Tom DeLay is the Hammer, brother Randy is the Nail.
On July 3, the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), in its first major merger decision since the agency's creation by Congress in January, ruled to allow a $5.4 billion merger between the Union Pacific (UP) and Southern Pacific (SP) railroad companies. The board's decision came despite fierce opposition to the merger from state and federal agencies, elected officials, and industry trade groups.
The U.S. departments of Justice, Transportation, and Agriculture all opposed the merger. Anne Bingaman, assistant U.S. attorney general for antitrust matters, told the Austin American-Statesman it is "the most anti-competitive rail merger in history." The Justice Department claims it could increase consumer costs by $800 million per year.
In Texas, the merger met with strong bipartisan opposition. Rebecca Fisher, assistant deputy chief of the Texas attorney general's antitrust office, says, "The merger will have a crippling effect on both shippers and receivers in Texas."
Nowhere will the effects of the merger be felt more keenly than in DeLay's own Houston district. Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson, a conservative Republican, points out that the merged railroads will have "a stranglehold over Houston," controlling 11 of the 13 rail lines connecting the city to the Gulf Coast's petrochemical plants. For this reason, many industrial interests in and around DeLay's district also opposed the deal.
So why did Tom DeLay work behind the scenes to ensure the merger?
On February 28, Tom DeLay and five fellow Texas representatives (all but one of them Republican) wrote the STB: "Texas shippers should...benefit from extensive capital improvements, expanded facilities, and track upgrades...Competition could also be much stronger than if UP and SP remained separate railroads." Ten House Republicans from California sent the STB a virtually identical letter.
Neither letter mentioned another reason DeLay and his GOP colleagues may have been inclined to support the merger: Union Pacific's PAC had given Republican Party committees $98,550 in soft money since 1995, and also had contributed to numerous candidates (including DeLay, who received $5,000). Still more impressive is the $300,000 in GOP soft money given by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz a few weeks after the letters' signing. As the largest individual shareholder in Southern Pacific, Anschutz stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars from the merger.
And if love of money wasn't enough to make DeLay favor a proposal likely to hurt his district, love of family may have been. According to lobbyist disclosure forms filed two weeks before DeLay wrote to the STB, his brother Randy was under retainer as a lobbyist for Union Pacific. Listed as his specific lobbying issues were: "Merger Application pending before Surface Transportation Board...and edification of Texas Congressional Delegation."
In other words, Randy was lobbying his own brother on behalf of the rail merger -- apparently with considerable success. Nor is this the only example of their collaboration.
In January, as the NFL's Houston Oilers planned a move to Nashville, Tenn., Tom DeLay co-sponsored a resolution limiting the ability of privately owned sports franchises to move to new cities. DeLay admitted that this stance was a departure from his usual philosophy. "I am a free-market nut," DeLay acknowledged to the Houston Chronicle, but because of the teams' "special responsibilities" to their hometowns, he said, their ability to move should be regulated by the government.
A previously undisclosed factor may have helped turn DeLay against the market forces he so cherishes: Mother Jones has determined that Randy DeLay was lobbying for the resolution on behalf of the city of Houston. (As Mother Jones goes to press, Randy DeLay has not yet been required to disclose the fees he has received from Union Pacific and the city of Houston. He also declined interview requests.)
In July 1995, Tom DeLay wrote an unsolicited op-ed for the Houston Chronicle, alleging that a tariff on Mexican cement was driving up prices in the United States. He also asked other members of Congress to write the Clinton administration in an effort to have the tariff overturned. DeLay opposed the tariff even though it had been imposed during the Bush administration, with the apparent support of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC.
Why would DeLay cross swords with fellow GOP conservatives? One possible answer presented itself when Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that Randy DeLay was lobbying against the tariff as a registered foreign agent of Cemex, the Mexican cement giant. According to lobbyist disclosure forms, Cemex paid Randy more than $176,000 between July and November 1995, during which time he personally lobbied his brother on behalf of Cemex at least four times.
But the biggest potential payoff for the DeLays could come from old-fashioned government pork. Plans are under way to build a U.S.-Mexico NAFTA "superhighway" through Texas, and boosters of two alternate routes are vying for that designation -- and the estimated $25-$50 billion in federal funds and commercial development that will go with it. One option is a proposed Interstate 69, which would follow the path of the existing U.S. Highway 59 through DeLay's district and on to Louisiana and Indianapolis.
Tom DeLay is co-chair of the Congressional I-69 Caucus, which has 36 members in the House and Senate. In the fall of 1995, he inserted language in the National Highway System bill designating part of U.S. 59 as Interstate 69. "Interstates bring with them economic growth and development," reads a statement released by DeLay. "The construction of I-69 through Houston brings these opportunities to the 5.5 million people living and working in Texas."
Again, what the statement did not mention is that Randy DeLay lobbied heavily for I-69 and receives at least $15,000 per month from pro-I-69 interests, including Pharr Economic Development Corporation and the I-69 Mid-Continent Highway Coalition.
Tom DeLay admitted to the National Journal that he has worked with his brother on the cement tariff and the I-69 proj-ect, but scoffed at intimations that this might constitute a conflict of interest, claiming his brother hadn't been treated "any differently" from other lobbyists. (DeLay declined to respond to Mother Jones' inquiries about the rail merger and the sports franchise resolution.)
Some observers, however, say the DeLay tag-team efforts look like influence-peddling. "This pattern of conduct suggests Tom DeLay has been doing special favors for his brother," says Bill Magavern, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch. "He is clearly abusing his position."
"The DeLays ought to be investigated by the House Ethics Committee," says Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. "The fact they haven't been investigated is just one more example of how House members have blocked the ethics process in the 104th Congress."
Jan Reid is a journalist and novelist living in Austin, Texas. Research assistance provided by Rachel Burstein.