‘The Hammer’ Checked Every Sleazy Box

Tom DeLay didn’t break Washington, but he’s a living symbol of what broke it.

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Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 4, 2013, 2 a.m.

What ails Wash­ing­ton? My list would in­clude hy­per-par­tis­an re­dis­trict­ing schemes, pay-to-play cor­rup­tion, zero-sum-gain ideo­logy, run­away en­ti­tle­ment spend­ing and, fi­nally, the trivi­al­iz­ing no­tion that U.S. polit­ics is a game played by celebrity-politi­cians.

Who broke Wash­ing­ton? No one per­son, of course, but former GOP strong­man Tom DeLay checks every sleazy box. The former GOP House ma­jor­ity lead­er rep­res­en­ted Texas’ 22nd con­gres­sion­al dis­trict from 1984 to 2006, when he left amid scan­dal.

Re­dis­trict­ing: The Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires new con­gres­sion­al lines to be drawn every 10 years to re­flect the latest census, a pro­cess that has al­ways been freighted by polit­ics. Due to ad­vances in both tech­no­logy and par­tis­an­ship, the pro­cess is more rigged than ever to fa­vor in­cum­bents and con­trolling parties.

In 1998, the Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port iden­ti­fied 164 swing dis­tricts in the House—that is, dis­tricts with­in 5 points of the na­tion­al av­er­age in the pre­vi­ous elec­tion. Today, there are 90 swing dis­tricts, the only places with a le­git­im­ate shot at a con­tested race. That is a 45 per­cent de­cline since 1998. Also, the latest re­dis­trict­ing made the av­er­age GOP dis­trict less ra­cially di­verse, even as the na­tion grew more di­verse.

The res­ult of these shifts is that House Re­pub­lic­ans are pulled far to the right and House Demo­crats to the left. Law­makers worry more about primary elec­tions, where ex­trem­ists and pur­ity tests threaten their seats, than they do about gen­er­al elec­tions, which are heav­ily stacked in their fa­vor.

DeLay didn’t in­vent ger­ry­man­der­ing, but he took it to new depths. The Texas Re­pub­lic­an was House ma­jor­ity lead­er when he en­gin­eered a plan to re­draw his home state’s polit­ic­al maps in 2003, an al­most un­pre­ced­en­ted un­do­ing of the once-a-dec­ade tra­di­tion. Demo­crats called it what it was, a na­ked power grab, but the U.S. Su­preme Court up­held most of the plan in 2006.

Pay-to-Play: The Texas ploy cost DeLay. His fun­drais­ing on be­half of the re­dis­trict­ing plan led to an ad­mon­ish­ment from the House eth­ics com­mit­tee and a state-level in­dict­ment on charges of il­leg­ally di­vert­ing money to the cam­paigns of state le­gis­lat­ors who drew the new map. He was forced to quit the House. DeLay was found guilty, and a Texas court over­turned the con­vic­tion last month.

The former pest ex­term­in­at­or seemed to make a hobby of blur­ring eth­ic­al and leg­al lines. Along with then-House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich and con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist Grover Nor­quist, DeLay pres­sured Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing firms to hire their GOP pals and re­war­ded loy­al GOP lob­by­ists with ac­cess. The K Street Pro­ject was a brazen quid pro quo scam, un­eth­ic­al as it was leg­al. In 2007, Con­gress banned mem­bers of Con­gress from in­flu­en­cing em­ploy­ment de­cisions of private en­tit­ies for polit­ic­al pur­poses, a re­sponse to the up­roar over the K Street Pro­ject.

Two of DeLay’s former polit­ic­al aides pleaded guilty in 2006 to cor­rup­tion charges along with dis­graced GOP lob­by­ist Jack Ab­ramoff. Ab­ramoff al­legedly provided DeLay with trips, gifts, and polit­ic­al dona­tions in ex­change for spe­cial treat­ment af­forded to his cli­ents. DeLay denied the ac­cus­a­tions and was not charged in the Ab­ramoff case, but his name will forever be tied to pay-for-play polit­ics.

Zero-sum gain: DeLay rep­res­ents a my-way-or-the-high­way mind-set that is so com­mon and cor­ros­ive in polit­ics today. Nick­named “The Ham­mer,” he nur­tured a repu­ta­tion for en­for­cing party dis­cip­line and re­tri­bu­tion against any­body who de­fied George W. Bush’s White House. He was known to threaten dis­loy­al Re­pub­lic­an law­makers: Cross him and he’d find and sup­port GOP primary foes. To win, there seemed to be no lever that DeLay wouldn’t pull. Even bribery. The House eth­ics com­mit­tee un­an­im­ously ad­mon­ished DeLay in 2004 be­cause he “offered to en­dorse Rep­res­ent­at­ive [Nick] Smith’s son in ex­change for Rep­res­ent­at­ive Smith’s vote in fa­vor of the Medi­care bill.”

Run­away en­ti­tle­ments: That Medi­care bill ex­ten­ded pre­scrip­tion drug cov­er­age, adding more than $500 bil­lion to the na­tion’s debt-rid­den books. Pres­id­ent Bush thought that was a small price to pay for a reelec­tion is­sue. The ad­min­is­tra­tion sup­pressed a re­port on the costs, an act the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ing Of­fice later called il­leg­al. When the House voted on the bill, Demo­crats seemed to have de­feated it after the 15-minute vot­ing peri­od. But DeLay froze the le­gis­lat­ive clock for three hours while his team strong-armed law­makers, an ex­traordin­ary breach of pro­tocol.

Celebrity polit­ics: DeLay is by no means the first politi­cian to blur the lines between polit­ics and pop cul­ture, or even the worst of­fend­er. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to pub­lish an em­bar­rass­ing photo. In 2009, the Tex­an par­ti­cip­ated in the real­ity TV show Dan­cing With the Stars, don­ning a se­quined, leo­pard-lined vest and or­tho­ped­ic shoes to per­form the cha-cha-cha. Stress frac­tures in his feet forced him from the com­pet­i­tion. While pro­mot­ing the show, DeLay re­sor­ted to his old tricks: He echoed the false but dur­able “birth­er” con­spir­acy the­or­ies about Pres­id­ent Obama.

Even in re­tire­ment, softened in se­quins, The Ham­mer checks the boxes.

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