Nailing the Hammer

A veteran Texas journalist ponders the astonishing rise -- and likely fall -- of Tom DeLay.

| Wed Oct. 27, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

Is Tom DeLay's luck finally running out? By virtue of prodigious fundraising skills and a willingness to use power ruthlessly, the House majority leader has become a de facto prime minister on Capitol Hill, wielding more clout, by far, than Speaker Dennis Hastert. But DeLay has always walked a fine ethical line, and now three separate sets of state and federal investigators are looking into whether he and his associates have finally gone to far.

As Lou Dubose, the co-author of The Hammer: God, Money, and the the Rise of the Republican Congress, writes in the November-December issue of Mother Jones, it might be too soon to start writing DeLay’s political obituary -- but it’s probably a good idea to keep a pen handy. "By itself, none of the inquiries is an immediate threat to DeLay's power as majority leader,” writes Dubose. “But together, they threaten to expose -- and perhaps even unravel -- the machine he has been building since first getting elected to Congress in 1984."

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Dubose, a former editor of Texas Monthly, is co-author, with Molly Ivins, of Bushwacked: Life in George W. Bush's America, and Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. He recently talked with MotherJones.com about the astonishing rise -- and likely fall -- of Tom DeLay, aka The Hammer.

MotherJones.com: When Tom DeLay got his start in politics in the late 1970s, his colleagues didn't think he'd amount to much, did they?

LD: No, he was a clownish [Texas] state representative. He was known as “Hot Tub Tom.” He lived in a house that came to be known as “Macho Manor” with three other guys. He was a drunk at night and an ideologue by day. No one took him seriously. He never seemed destined for leadership.

MJ.com: But now he’s arguably the most powerful politician in Congress. How did he do it?

LD: He did it by a methodical climb to power. The big secret to DeLay’s success was raising money. He’s not a likeable person. He’s a guy with no Elvis in him; he’s not Bill Clinton. But he’s respected, feared, and appreciated because of the staggering amounts of money he’s raised. He raised $12 million dollars in two-and-a-half years. His political action committee, ARMPAC, is the largest in the House. Size matters.

MJ.com: What else sets him apart?

LD: Hardness. He’s not afraid to use his power and he uses it ruthlessly. If a member of his own House caucus disagrees with him and won’t vote the way he wants them to vote, he’ll go out and find a primary opponent to run against them, and he’ll tell them -- or he’ll let it be known -- that he’s going to “primary” them. He has threatened to take people’s chairs away from them. He uses power to the point of abusing it.

MJ.com: Hence, “The Hammer”?

LD: He’s called “The Hammer” because of the force with which he attacks both his legislative agenda and his colleagues when they don’t work for him. He doesn’t go after Democrats in the House in terms of trying to line up votes. The House is completely divided; there’s no bipartisanship. But “The Hammer” refers to this crude style of his. And some years back someone gave him a velvet-covered hammer as a joke, and he said, this is far better, it’ll leave fewer marks when I use it.

MJ.com: You write that DeLay, as well as being ruthless, really understands the way Congress works.

LD: Yes, he really understands the institution. He really understands the members of the Republican House. He doesn't just twist their arms; he rubs their backs. When he was running the whip operation, if they wanted reservations at a golf course, if they wanted hotel reservations, if they wanted a fundraiser in their district, if they needed reservations in a restaurant, he had someone who would take care of it. It was a full-service operation.

MJ.com: So he has all this power. But to what end? What drives Tom DeLay?

LD: The sheer acquisition and use of power -- building a Republican majority in the House that he himself can control. I don’t see any real personal financial corruption. He lives in a $345,000 house on a golf course, but that’s not a big deal for a congressman. He lives in a modest condo in Arlington, Va., worth $99,000 -- pretty drab. He’s not the kind of guy who would live in a fancy house on Capitol Hill. That might come later, though. These guys get a payoff in the end, not through official corruption but through incredible lobbying jobs or consulting jobs. It’s all about power with him, and implementing an agenda.

MJ.com: Do you think he wants to rule more than he wants to govern?

LD: Without doubt. He does rule. This is not a governing model. This is not, "Let’s sit down and talk with Nancy Pelosi." This is, "We’re running the show, and we’re running our caucus, and our conference, and our guys had damn well better line up behind us." There’s no collaboration, even within the Republican Party. He beats up on the moderate caucus until it barely exists. They’re cowardly, but he’s cowed them in a way that they’ve never been cowed before.

MJ.com: Sounds like Tom Delay isn’t good for democracy.

LD: It’s a real threat to democratic government. There is no democratic government in the House. And he has a certain amount of power over the Senate because he defines legislation, shapes legislation, sees to it that legislation is extremely conservative in its content so that when the Senate begins its negotiations, it’s with a bill that’s so conservative that you can’t move it to the center.

He has said that the Democrats are “irrelevant.” They don’t even talk to each other -- at least, the leadership doesn’t. There’s no communication whatsoever, even on committee staffs; this is unprecedented. Committee staffs used to work in collaboration, Democrats with Republicans. The Democrats are on holiday; there’s nothing for them to do!

MJ.com: What’s about ideas? What ideas drive him?

LD: He’s not a big thinker. He’s not a policy intellectual in any way. The simplest idea he’s motivated by is that all government regulation is bad. He was asked by a reporter six or eight years ago if he could think of a single government regulation he would support. He couldn't! He wants to dismantle the EPA, he wants to dismantle the Department of Education. He wants a sort of laissez-faire ultra-capitalism. He wants low taxes. He used to be a deficit hawk, but now that deficits are acceptable in the Republican Party he’s not bothered by a half-trillion dollar deficit. Basically, for DeLay, the best government is no government. Government has three functions: post offices, highways, and the military. He’s an absolute militarist -- even though he managed to slip out of the draft.

MJ.com: Like George W. Bush, DeLay is a born-again Christian. How has religion shaped his career?

LD: He’s all about religion. He used to drink a lot. He went to Washington, said he was drinking 12, 13 Martinis a night in Washington, which is a staggering amount of liquor. Then he walked into the office of Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, and Wolf said he’d seen how he was living and that he was dissolute and that he wanted him to consider religion. He handed DeLay a tape by James Dobson [the Colorado evangelical sales marketer] and DeLay watched the tape and came to Jesus, stopped drinking, mostly. He found religion at about the same time half the country and much of the Republican Party did. So religion does define much of what this guy’s about.

MJ.com: Do you doubt his sincerity?

LD: No. I think there’s a cynicism to using religion as much as he does, but he’s the real deal in terms of fundamentalist Christianity. It happens to work well for him, because the Republican Party is controlled by the Christian conservatives. Lose the Christian Right and they lose the election. They know that, and he knows it. The political advantage is the added value it provides for Tom DeLay, because Karl Rove has to respect him. The White House has to respect him because he talks to the base in a way that even Bush doesn’t. He can get away with saying and doing things that Bush can’t. And that gives him considerable leverage with the White House.

MJ.com: And he doesn’t mind defying the president.

LD: That’s right. On certain issues, if he feels strongly enough about it. The fact that there is no energy bill today is down to Tom DeLay. This was Cheney’s big policy initiative, a new energy bill, and it didn’t pass because there’s one provision in it that Tom DeLay didn’t like, having to do with MTBE, a gasoline additive that’s manufactured in his district. Cheney called him and pleaded with him to pass the energy bill, and he said no -- not with that provision in it. He likes exercising that power and flexing his muscles. He has real independence when he chooses to defy the White House.

On the other hand, the Medicare bill, the prescription drug bill that the White House also desperately wanted, wouldn’t have happened without him. The bill that was passed at six in the morning after an unprecedented three-hour open vote -- House votes are generally open for 15 minutes; never before in the history of the House was this done. They kept it open until they finally broke the will of the last Republican who was opposing it. That bill passed because of Tom DeLay.

MJ.com: How has DeLay shaped the House?

LD: [The transformation of the House] really started with Gingrich. The Republican leadership consolidated power in a number of ways, by doing things like term limits for chairmen. You can’t learn to run a committee like Appropriations or the Intelligence committee in anything less than six years. They cut staff, so that lobbyists write bills now more than staffers, because the staffers are dependent on the lobbyists. DeLay watches closely over the committee chairs. He very strongly supports things like the earmarking of designated funds for a congressman’s district if he doesn’t behave.

DeLay has imposed his model on the House of Representatives. The House meets two days a week now. Most Americans think they show up every day. And they don’t debate bills anymore. Most legislation is a foregone conclusion by the time it gets to the floor. The model is now a parliamentary model. You vote or we fall. The government is the House leadership, and DeLay is effectively a prime minister who can compel his MPs to vote.

DeLay has, more than anyone else, domesticated the corporate lobby on K Street. He once called lobbyists into his office, showed them a book, and said “Here are your contributions. You’re giving to Democrats. You’re not giving enough to Republicans. He’s sent word to lobby shops that they couldn’t hire any more Democrats.

Along with Hastert, DeLay has made the lobby a fourth branch of government, working for the Republican leadership. A lobbyist told me that, with the first Bush tax cut, the House leadership called the lobbyists to a meeting in the basement and said, “You’re all here because you’re the best lobbyists in town and you’re loyal Republicans and because you’re going to pass the president’s tax cut for us. The bill wasn’t written yet! There could be no protest. The lobbyists were told to go out and pass this bill.

MJ.com: And if lobby shops do hire Democrats, then what?

LD: No access to the leadership’s office, which means they’re rendered impotent. They have no street value anymore to the people who hire them, because they have no access to the leadership.

 

MJ.com: Do you think he’ll run for Speaker?

LD: That’s his goal. He could’ve already had it. No one challenged him when he ran for Majority Leader. He’ll take the Speaker's chair when he wants it. He’s running the House as it is, and he’s not as polarizing [as majority leader]. The Republican Party kept him hidden in New York; you saw him nowhere at the convention, because he’s extremely polarizing. So he can have it when he wants it -- unless, that is, the story that began as "Mr. Smith goes to Washington," where this exterminator gets elected to office because he didn’t like government regulation, ends up being "Mr. Smith Goes to Jail." So he either goes to the Speaker’s chair or he goes to jail. He’s in real trouble in Texas now.

MJ.com: How likely is it he’ll be indicted?

LD: I think there’s a chance. He and Jim Ellis, who stands indicted now, created Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) in Texas, using the ARMPAC model. They raised $1.5 million, put it into 22 [state] races, and they won 17 of the 22. They won the House for the Republicans. Then DeLay’s hand-picked candidate, Tom Craddock, became the Speaker of the House, and they agreed to redraw the U.S. redistricting lines in a way that would create five to seven new Republican seats, squeezing the Democrats out by redrawing their districts.

The problem was, half the $1.5 million they raised in Texas was corporate money. Well, it’s against the law to raise money from a corporation and spend it in Texas.

Ultimately I think it leads to DeLay because he created the PAC. I quote a letter out of the civil pleading, from an Oklahoma corporation, that said, “Dear Congressman DeLay, enclosed is $25,000.” He has said that he was distant from it, but the email seems to suggest otherwise. It could be that Ronnie Earle, the D.A. in Harris County, is using a proctological approach to this investigation, starting at the bottom and working toward the top. He’s going to put these contributors, who worked for corporations, on the witness stand before a Texas jury with the possibility of huge fines and, for the fundraisers, jail time. And people tend to tell the truth when faced with prison.

MJ.com: In the shorter term, do his legal troubles weaken him as a campaigner and a money raiser, and also among the Republican leadership?

LD: I think so. You know, a funny thing happened in Texas recently. The Lone Star PAC that was raising corporate contributions began mailing the corporate contributions back to the donors. So he is weakened. His fundraising apparatus will be weakened. He’s lawyered up, he’s ready for a legal fight, but I think he’s weakened there also. There are two other DeLay associates -- my bet is that one or both of them will be indicted by a Washington D.C. grand jury, Jack Abramoff and Mike Scanlon. Mike Scanlon is DeLay’s former press aide, and Abramoff was a long-time associate and advisor who was in his kitchen cabinet. They billed four Indian tribes $45 million, maybe $48 million -- that’s $14 million more than G.E. paid in the same period.

MJ.com: What if he doesn’t get indicted?

LD: Well, how much cumulative scandal can one politician be associated with before he falls vertically? And at a certain point he becomes a liability for the Republican House leadership and the Republican Party. And it’s not just association; these are his guys. There are more high-paid lobbyists that have come through his office and onto K Street than any other member of Congress. There’s an entire shop of DeLay lobbyists, the Alexander Strategy Group. So at a certain point, because the testimony is so damaging, and reveals precisely how he works, that he ends up a liability to the Republican Party.

MJ.com: DeLay has been trying to soften the hard-ass image. Why is he trying to do that, and how successful has he been?

LD: Well, Jim Hightower has said, “You can put lipstick on a hog, but you can’t the ugly.” You know, Tom DeLay is Tom DeLay. He is a hard-ass politician, and getting his teeth capped, at his wife’s suggestion, and getting his hair redone, and blow-dried, and getting rid of the helmet head, wearing better clothes, and having a little kinder, gentler demeanor still doesn’t hide what the guy is. I think he’s doing that because if he’s going to be Speaker, it helps to look better, because he’s before cameras much more frequently. And the other part is, having this softer image, cultivating the press a bit more, might make it easier for him if and when he ascends to Speaker, or even now, when he has a much higher profile.

MJ.com: You quote Barney Frank in the book to the effect that a vote for the GOP in November is a vote for DeLay.

LD: We now have a parliamentary system in Congress. And if you vote for any Republican House member anywhere in the country, you’re voting for Tom DeLay, because he’s going to control this person. And because of that he’s going to have enormous influence over the White House. Unless what started out as "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" ends up as "Mr. Smith goes to Jail." But if things continue as they’ve been going, Tom DeLay is in control.

MJ.com: Even under a Kerry presidency?

LD: Absolutely. Much as Newt did with Clinton, except much smarter and below the radar, and not putting himself up there as a punching bag for the press. He’s smart enough to choreograph his press events every other week, and he doesn’t crave public attention the way Newt did, and that’s an asset for him. He thought Newt was a failed professor and a bit of a buffoon, and that he was out there and made himself a target. And Tom DeLay isn’t going to make himself a target. He’s much more comfortable working behind the scenes.

MJ.com: In your book's Acknowledgements you thank a colleague for reminding you of the importance of hitting a note of hope in a book. Where's the hope here?

LD: Well, it’s a grim book. But it seems to me that there’s hope in this book, and it’s this: It might take a lot -- and the country and the Congress has almost lost its gag reflex -- but the system is beginning to respond. The legal system in Texas is working. Ronnie Earle, the Democratic D.A. in Austin, stood up and said it’s against the law to raise corporate money in Texas and I’m indicting these guys. The Republican legislature is going to take his funding away, he’ll have no funding for his public integrity unit, but that system, that check, is working. Also, John McCain is not at all fond of DeLay. He represents everything McCain's against, and he fought McCain on campaign finance reform. McCain is taking a hard look at these guys. You know, it takes a lot, but at least the system is responding in some way.