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.