Taking sleaze to a new level

WHEN A POLITICIAN is enmeshed in scandal, it usually has little to do with the regular way he conducts himself in office. Despite all the heroic attempts by President Clinton’s critics to make promiscuity or lying a metaphor for his presidency, most of what he did had little to do with bedding interns.

The same goes for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s alleged insider trading or Karl Rove’s alleged uncovering of a clandestine CIA officer. Frist or Rove may be bad people, but these alleged crimes are not an outgrowth of their everyday behavior.

The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is another matter entirely. It’s hard to imagine how DeLay could function without at least coming very close to breaking the law. His indictment is an indictment of the whole way the Republican Party operates. The central theme of DeLay’s tenure has been to break down barriers to greater corporate influence in American politics.


Some of these barriers are mere social norms. It once was considered completely beyond the pale to, say, threaten political retribution against corporations that give donations and lobbying jobs to the other party. DeLay and his “K Street Project” made this a regular practice.

Some of these barriers are formal rules that lack the force of law. The House of Representatives forbids its members from accepting trips from lobbyists. DeLay regularly accepted such trips, financed through transparent front groups.

And some of these barriers are actual laws. Texas law forbids the use of corporate money in elections. DeLay allegedly masterminded a scheme whereby corporations would donate money earmarked for Texas races to the Republican National Committee, which would then pour the money into the Texas races.

The central vision of DeLayism is of a political system whereby business gains almost total control over the Republican agenda, and in return the GOP gains unlimited financial influence over the electoral process.

Since many of the formal and informal rules of American politics are designed to prevent this sort of corrupt plutocracy from coming to fruition, scandal follows DeLayism like night follows day.

For probably the best evidence that DeLayism is an institutional imperative, not just the personal quirk of a particularly nasty Houston exterminator, consider one horrifying fact: DeLay’s successor, Roy Blunt, is probably even sleazier than he is.

Blunt’s contribution to the GOP cause has been to delegate the tasks of formulating legislation and rounding up votes to lobbyists. Whereas DeLay did this in a relatively informal way, Blunt has made the blurring between lobbyist and legislator formal. Blunt’s admiring deputy told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that lobbyists “are really an extension of the whip team. Through Roy’s leadership, we’ve been able to take this to the next level.”

Blunt has brought to this task some characteristic flourishes that would make even DeLay blanch. Blunt’s son, Andrew, is a lobbyist whose client list is filled with his father’s donors. In 2003, he tried to sneak a provision into a domestic security bill benefiting Philip Morris. At the time he was dating a Philip Morris lobbyist, and he has since married her.

DeLay himself objected -- not on moral grounds, of course, but for fear that such a brazen move would embarrass the party.

Blunt’s crowning legislative achievement was the 2004 corporate tax bill. The measure essentially consisted of handing out special favors and subsidies to virtually every corporate lobbyist. There was no plausible public policy justification for the giveaways. Even fervently anti-tax conservatives denounced it. Heck, even one of the lobbyists involved in writing the bill confessed to the Washington Post that it represented “a new level of sleaze.”

You could easily have had a Democratic president carrying out Clinton’s program without dipping into the intern pool. Somebody could do Frist’s job just as well without trading (allegedly) on inside stock information. But you simply cannot fulfill DeLay’s responsibilities without wallowing in sleaze.