Strong-arm and hammer

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas is the force behind the renewed push to impeach the president.


Joe Conason
December 9, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Don't believe what you read about a "leaderless" Congress drifting toward impeachment, or the sudden fury on Capitol Hill about President Clinton's prevarications, or even the pious pronouncements about a "vote of conscience."

If the House of Representatives ignores the result of the November election and approves one or more articles of impeachment against the president before Christmas, that historic misuse of constitutional prerogative will be the proud boast of one tough politician who is now driving the process: Tom DeLay, the former exterminator from Texas who serves as the Republican Majority Whip.

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Given the overwhelming public sentiment against impeachment, which has led many to believe that the issue would die on the House floor, only a figure as influential and determined as DeLay could have revived it. He has done so by filling the power vacuum left by the departing Speaker Newt Gingrich and his successor, Bob Livingston, who has permitted DeLay to take de facto control of the Republican conference.

Livingston is nowhere to be found, while DeLay blusters his way through the Sunday talk shows, promoting impeachment. Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican moderate who is pushing for censure and is trying to convince other moderates to join him, pointed to DeLay, not Livingston, when he appeared on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday. Clinton won't be impeached, predicted King, "if Tom DeLay allows us a free conscience vote on whether or not there should be a censure motion."

Though DeLay's grim countenance is only now becoming familiar to most Americans, he is already a minor legend in Washington. "Tough" and "mean" are the epithets with which his colleagues most frequently describe the Texas congressman, who almost started a fistfight with Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., on the House floor a few years ago. The New York Times denounced him as "thuggish" in a recent editorial, and it is true that hearing him speak does not immediately inspire respect for his subtlety.

But while DeLay may scare a few quaking moderates with personal bullying, he possesses a far more effective weapon to enforce his will. When he raises his fist, it is usually filled with campaign cash. He won his informal nickname as "the Hammer" over the past few years by shaking down business lobbyists with naked threats. He keeps lists of the most active political action committees, carefully tracking how much they give to Republicans and to Democrats, and rewarding or punishing them accordingly when their interests are affected by legislation. Since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, these tactics have tilted the flow of business money decisively in their favor: In the last election, almost two-thirds of the business PAC dollars flowed into Republican coffers.

DeLay has long been among the top fund-raisers in the House, and one of its most obdurate opponents of campaign finance reform. His surprise election as whip in 1994 -- over a candidate strongly preferred by Gingrich -- was widely credited to the millions of dollars he had directed to victorious Republican challengers the year before. The grateful freshman conservatives returned the favor by supporting his elevation into the leadership. And when DeLay called up to demand a certain vote in his role as whip, those same new members understood that to displease him would mean forfeiting the campaign funds that would ensure their reelection.

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Some notion of DeLay's power may be gleaned from a single statistic from this year's election data: By Nov. 3, the top 50 corporate PACs alone had given more than $36 million to Republican candidates, or an average of nearly $160,000 to each of the 228 GOP members. Now keep in mind that the "Hammer" continuously monitors the donations of the top 400 PACs -- because that is exactly what DeLay's colleagues have in mind when he asks how they intend to vote on impeachment.

When he's not pushing impeachment, the exacting Texan's organizational skills are marshaled behind other elements of the far-right-wing political agenda. On both economic and social issues, DeLay fervently espouses the fringe ideology that threatens to drive moderates out of the Republican Party altogether. If he could, DeLay would abolish the minimum wage and most other regulation of business; he nurtures a particular hatred of environmental laws, which hobbled his Houston pest-control company. When he invites corporate lobbyists to write legislation affecting their companies, he is implementing his beliefs while soliciting donations.

Having undergone a personal religious awakening after he entered Congress in 1985, DeLay also maintains close ties to national leaders of the religious right. To appease their demand for strong measures against abortion, gay rights and other secular sins, he established last year a special caucus known as the Values Action Team. (The team's Web page on DeLay's site links directly to James Dobson's Focus on the Family and to Gary Bauer's Family Research Council.) Not long ago, DeLay summed up with typical bluntness his own "pro-family" interpretation of the First Amendment. "There is," he said, "no separation of church and state in that statement."

Unsurprisingly then, DeLay's view of impeachment has faithfully reflected the fanatical hatred of the president promoted by the religious right ever since the Rev. Jerry Falwell began hawking the "Clinton Chronicles" videotapes in 1994. Like Falwell, Dobson, Bauer and Pat Robertson, DeLay regards the removal of Clinton to be his duty as a pious Christian. Back in September, he publicly vowed to block any attempt to vote on censure as a substitute for impeachment -- and he now stands as the chief obstacle to compromise.

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That implacable attitude, combined with the corporate money to back it up, explains why a dozen or so Republicans who seemed certain to reject impeachment just a few weeks ago may vote instead to prolong the present crisis. They probably fear the Hammer more than the wrath of their own exasperated constituents.


Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

MORE FROM Joe Conason

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich Tom Delay

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