House Majority leader Tom DeLay is not a physically imposing man. "Five-foot-seven if he's wearing high heels," in the words of Fort Bend County sheriff Milton Wright, whom DeLay once spent $70,000 to defeat in an election because the sheriff had hired a woman whose husband had sued DeLay. Yet in the decade since Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the former exterminator from suburban Houston has achieved the political stature of the historical giants in Statuary Hall outside his Capitol office. He did it on his own, consolidating his political power and using it with a remarkable sense of purpose.
DeLay's rapid ascent has been the result of more than hard work and a keen understanding of politics. He became majority whip and then majority leader by raising massive sums of money -- a total of $12.6 million between 2000 and 2002 alone -- and by strategically spending it on Republican candidates, in effect buying the loyalty of his colleagues. He has domesticated K Street, demanding loyalty and contributions from lobbyists in return for favorable treatment. And all along the way, he has strained, reinterpreted, and sometimes simply side-stepped ethics regulations in Washington and even in his home state of Texas, which has some of the nation's loosest campaign finance laws.
Now, three separate sets of state and federal investigators are looking into whether DeLay and his associates may have finally crossed the line. They are trying to determine how the majority leader's interlocking political action committees (PACs) work in concert with his protégés in the lobbying industry -- a fundraising apparatus the Washington press corps refers to as "DeLay Inc." They are also considering allegations that this elaborate operation broke state and federal laws -- allegations that have prompted DeLay to hire criminal defense attorneys and raise money for a legal defense fund.
Two civil suits filed in Austin allege that DeLay's Texas political action committee raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through illegal means. A parallel criminal investigation by Austin's district attorney, Ronnie Earle, has already led to the indictment of DeLay's top Texas fundraisers -- and Earle is not ruling out the possibility that DeLay himself could be a target of the investigation. And the Senate Indian Affairs Committee has subpoenaed records on two DeLay associates who used their access to "the Leader" to secure $45 million in lobbying and consulting fees from four Indian tribes. A federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., is also investigating those fees.
By itself, none of the inquiries is an immediate threat to DeLay's power as majority leader. But together, they threaten to expose -- and perhaps even unravel -- the machine he has been building since first getting elected to Congress in 1984.
The muscular tactics that earned DeLay the nickname "the Hammer" have gained the fear and respect of his Republican colleagues. He won his first top leadership position by defeating Newt Gingrich's candidate for majority whip in 1994. After Gingrich resigned as speaker four years later, DeLay used the political machine he had created to make Dennis Hastert, his deputy whip, the only viable candidate in the race. In 2002 DeLay was elected majority leader without a whisper of challenge.
Today DeLay controls a leadership PAC substantially larger than the PAC that Speaker Hastert operates. He directs more campaign money to Republican candidates than does Hastert. He has such firm control of K Street that many lobbying firms won't fill important positions without consulting his office.
Nor is DeLay afraid to openly defy the Bush administration. Since being elected majority leader, he has killed the Bush-backed energy bill because it didn't contain his pet provision; flown to Israel to criticize the president's Middle East policy for being too soft on the Palestinians; and told reporters that the low-income tax credit Bush ordered the Republican Congress to get "to my desk" in 2003 "ain't going to happen." (It didn't.) He can kill or rescue legislation, as he demonstrated when he became personally involved in "whipping" the $400 billion Medicare prescription drug bill last November. "I am the federal government!" DeLay told a restaurant manager last year, according to the Washington Post, when he was asked to put out his cigar to comply with federal law. It's easy to see why he might think so.
As his stature has increased, DeLay's tactics have grown bolder and more aggressive -- and therein may lie the seeds of his present troubles. Buried in the exhibits supporting the lawsuit filed against him in Austin is a letter that encapsulates the civil and criminal investigations threatening him. It's addressed to a Texas-based political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), but the salutation reads "Dear Congressman DeLay." The letter is from the Williams corporation, a natural gas and pipeline company headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It says:
On behalf of the Williams Companies, Inc., I am pleased to forward our contribution of $25,000 for the TRMPAC that we pledged at the June 2, 2002 fundraiser.
With best wishes.
Deborah B. Lawrence
Vice President for Government Affairs
Enclosure: check $25,000
It's difficult to violate Texas campaign finance law. Any individual can contribute any amount to any legislative candidate, as long as the contributions are properly disclosed. It's the system that George W. Bush and Tom DeLay have said they would like to institute at the federal level (though Bush hasn't mentioned it much since the 2000 presidential campaign).
One of very few things you cannot do under Texas campaign finance law, however, is accept a corporate donation to be used in a political campaign, with a narrow exemption for administrative expenses. In September, an Austin grand jury indicted Williams and seven other companies for making illegal contributions to TRMPAC; three DeLay fundraisers, including a key political aide, were also indicted.