As Tom DeLay, the most powerful man on Capitol Hill for the past twelve years, prepares to quit his office in disgrace, it's startling that he still has no idea why he became the #1 symbol for corruption in Congress. In his exit interview with Time magazine, he says:
We have been effective for 11 years going now, doing some pretty amazing things. They hate that. The reason we've been effective is we've tried to change the culture of Washington, D.C. And do it legally and ethically. The Democrats hate the fact that their culture of K Street has been changed from a totally dominated Democrat K Street [lobbying community] to a totally dominated Republican K Street. Nothing illegal about that at all. And we built that. When we took over in 1995, the K Street contributions to elections was 70/30--70 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican. Today it's 60/40--60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrat. That's a change in culture.
But there was little that was legal or ethical about how DeLay and crew effected this change. The K Street Project started with him inviting lobbyists from the oil and gas, timber, pharmaceutical and insurance industries into his House offices to draft a moratorium on federal regulations of their businesses, the day before Republicans took over the House of Representatives in January 1995. As Lou Dubose and Jan Reid describe the scene in their biography of DeLay, "It was an unprecedented private occupation of the public places where the nation's laws are made."
"When the bill moved to the floor," Dubose and Reid write, "...amendments were written by lobbyists who took their laptops to the Capitol. "'They did everything but allow these guys to walk onto the floor with drafts of their amendments,' said a House staffer. Lobbyists were writing the legislation, DeLay said at the time, 'because they have the expertise.'"
Not only did DeLay and his fellow Republican leaders give the business lobby unprecedented access and influence over the legislative process; they also decided to use their new majority power in the House to force a radical transformation of the business lobby into an arm of the party.
The idea was to kill off the Democratic Party by drawing away the money and support it received from K Street from all the years that it had been in the majority. How? By using public records to compile lists of the party affiliations and campaign contributions of lobbyists and teach the business lobby that the Republicans would reward their friends and punish their enemies.
DeLay starting using this information to overtly threaten lobbyists. "If you're going to play in our revolution," DeLay said, "you've got to live by our rules." He started calling lobbyists into his office and showing them his ledger of their contributions, with the words "friendly" and "unfriendly" next to their totals, depending on whether they gave more to Republicans or Democrats.
What DeLay and his allies on Capitol Hill were doing amounted to extortion. In 1998, a top trade organization, the Electronic Industries Alliance, wanted to hire former Democratic Congressman Dave McCurdy as its president. DeLay let it be known that McCurdy would not be allowed in Republican leadership offices. When the EIA board insisted on hiring McCurdy, DeLay did something that astonished people in Washington. He pulled a major bill off the House calendar, one that the electronics industry as well as the broader business lobby had been working on for two years.
Soon, the electronics trade group backed down and hired two Republican lobbyists with close ties to the House Republican leadership. And everyone on K Street learned if they wanted to get in to see Republican legislators, they had to hire more Republicans and show up at their fundraisers. In return, they got what they wanted out of Congress.
DeLayism is broader than one man, and ending it requires more than one resignation from Congress. To get to the roots of this problem, we have to free our public representatives from their corrupting dependence on private money to run their campaigns, by offering them full public financing as done in states like Arizona and Maine. K Street should have to earn its influence on Capital Hill the same way as the rest of us, on the merits of our arguments, not the size of our checkbooks.
Tom DeLay once said, "Money is not the root of all evil in politics," but he was wrong. And now he is out. Let's get the money out, too.