Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Tom Delay, because ... well, OK, the bell isn't tolling for Tom DeLay -- not yet. Despite a steady drip-drip of allegations of improper conduct brought against the House majority leader, despite hints of dirty financing and whispers of bribery, the House ethics committee has yet to launch a proper investigation into DeLay's doings. But that's all set to change.
On Wednesday, Rep. Chris Bell (D-TX) filed a full-blown ethics complaint against DeLay. Bell's is the first formal complaint filed by a lawmaker against a House leader since 1997, when an ethics probe forced then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign from the House (Gingrich admitted to misleading investigators about his use of tax-exempt organizations to fund political activities). The seven-year post-Gingrich truce has slowly fractured after months of heavy pressure from Congressional watchdogs citing mounting evidence of Republican wrongdoing. Witness a grand jury investigation of DeLay.
The official tally against Tom DeLay contains three major grievances. For starters, officials from Kansas-based Westar Energy claimed (via a leaked memo) to have dished out $56,000 into GOP campaigns in exchange for a few energy legislation favors from DeLay and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA). This alleged bit of naughtiness has triggered a full FEC investigation. On top of that, Austin-based prosecutors are currently investigating whether DeLay's self-started political action committee, TRMPAC, illegally laundered corporate donations into local GOP campaigns. Finally, Bell complains that DeLay "improperly used his office" when the Texan ordered the FAA to hunt down state Democrats who had fled Austin, in order to hold up the DeLay-sponsored gerrymandering. (The Texas state legislature had crafted a redistricting plan designed to dilute the influence of millions of minority voters.)
It's a lengthy list, and a good start; but why stop there? The dirt on DeLay reaches far and wide. Herewith a sampling:
His alleged use of a children's charity to raise money for posh RNC parties. (Needless to say, illegal. And, honestly, a children's charity? Tom DeLay?)
His request in March that the Treasury Department analyze John Kerry's tax plan. (Federal law prohibits civil servants in the Treasury from working for a campaign while on duty.)
His grossly improper collaboration with his brother, a lobbyist, to push through key environmental legislation, as first reported by Mother Jones in 1996.
An ethics probe on DeLay is long overdue. Democrats should not waver from pressing the investigation, even if Republicans have threatened to retaliate, as the Washington Post reports:
A DeLay ally, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), said Republicans "are going to have to respond in kind" by filing ethics charges against key Democrats. From now on, he said in an interview, it's a matter of "you kill my dog, I'll kill your cat." Doolittle said he plans to file ethics charges against a prominent Democrat but would not name the target.
This is no idle threat. But as Robert Kuttner reported in a March issue of The American Prospect, Republicans hardly need to resort to underhanded measures; they've already given themselves a virtual monopoly of power in the House. What more do they want?:
Republican parliamentary gimmickry has emasculated legislative opposition in the House of Representatives … House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has both intimidated moderate Republicans and reduced the minority party to window dressing, rather like the token opposition parties in Mexico during the six-decade dominance of the PRI.
As things stand, the Democrats have almost nothing left to lose. It's high time, then, that they start fighting back.