Tom DeLay's extraordinary influence is not due to his charm, his wit, nor his wisdom. Follow his money.
More than half of the American public has never heard of Tom DeLay, the conservative Republican who’s represented Texas’ 22nd district, including Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Harris counties, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1984. And, according to a poll taken late last year, among those few who do manage to recall who he is, DeLay is a blank slate, with nearly half unable to scrounge up any opinion about him one way or the other.
But according to both friends and foes on the Hill, DeLay is the single most powerful member of Congress. “He has moved more aggressively than anyone I have ever seen to accumulate leverage and power,” says Norm Ornstein, veteran political analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Yet unlike former Speaker Newt Gingrich–who, until his spectacular fall from grace in 1998, was a ubiquitous and controversial symbol of Republican power in the House, and who often excelled as a blue-sky theoretician and strategist–DeLay is nearly faceless, rarely making headlines. DeLay’s style is almost the polar opposite of Newt’s. He operates largely behind the scenes, pulling strings and making the wheels turn in Congress, and wielding enormous power over the GOP rank and file through a top-down command structure of lieutenants. Though fiercely partisan and ideologically bonded to the right wing of the Republican party, DeLay has made himself indispensable by amassing an unparalleled political machine. “He is the implementer,” says Robert Rusbuldt, a senior lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents of America and a key member of DeLay’s kitchen cabinet. “Some think that he is the enforcer.” Nicknamed “The Hammer” for his often heavy-handed use of brute political power, DeLay himself prefers a different and more modest metaphor. Acknowledging that among recent GOP congressional leaders Speaker Gingrich was the “visionary” and House Majority Leader and Dallas Republican Dick Armey was the “policy wonk,” DeLay said, “I’m the ditch digger who makes it all happen.”
For DeLay, making it happen starts and ends with money, in the form of cold, hard campaign cash. “Money,” DeLay says, “is not the root of all evil in politics. In fact, money is the lifeblood of politics.” Perhaps the staunchest opponent of campaign finance reform in the House, DeLay currently serves as the party’s chief liaison to Washington’s business lobbyists, money men, and corporate political action committee directors. Using his organizational muscle as majority whip in the House, a key leadership position, and his uncanny ability to raise and distribute millions of dollars in political money, DeLay is an indefatigable driving force behind the Republican agenda in Congress.
But DeLay’s money machine faces a critical performance test in 2000. With polls showing that Democrats look increasingly likely to regain control of the House next year, DeLay is scrambling to assemble an unprecedented campaign war chest to be deployed this fall. In so doing, he has stretched Federal Election Commission regulations and campaign finance laws to (and perhaps beyond) the breaking point, putting together a network of funds and PACs nicknamed “DeLay Inc.”
And DeLay faces another test as well. For the next nine months, DeLay has to juggle the demands of an often rambunctious Republican House caucus while trying to maintain a partnership with the presidential juggernaut of George W. Bush. Bush’s campaign style–“compassionate conservative” rhetoric and a nonconfrontational approach to voters not normally part of the GOP constituency base–clashes with DeLay’s rawer, more partisan demeanor. And, though DeLay is a master at collecting campaign money, he now finds himself dependent, perhaps uncomfortably so, on Bush’s far greater access to political money to help finance Republican candidates for the House in 2000. Not only that, but Bush, whose campaign will of necessity stress the need for change in Washington, is bound to clash thematically with the House Republicans’ self-interested emphasis on continuity. That’s a difference likely to be exacerbated by the Bush campaign’s realization that voters have demonstrated a growing distaste for the House Republicans’ excessive zeal and political over-reaching since 1994. As a result, it’s at least an open question whether DeLay will be able to establish and keep up a harmonious working relationship with Bush & Co. over the next nine months.
Taken roughly in chronological order, the keys to Tom DeLay’s power would be, first, his unassailable position atop the 22nd district of Texas, cemented by his fundraising prowess; second, his ability to command the House Republican organization as majority whip, using a network of about sixty GOP representatives who march in lock-step to DeLay’s orders; third, his unique relationship with “K Street” (the Washington lobbying and PAC crowd) in building private-sector coalitions to advance his agenda; and fourth, the recent construction of DeLay Inc., a nest of organizations whose access to political cash is likely to transform the American electoral system beyond recognition in 2000.
Let’s look at those one at a time.
Since first going to Congress in 1984 as part of the “six-pack” of Texas Republican freshmen elected that year–when Texas Republicans were a scarcer breed than they are today–DeLay has not really faced a serious challenge by a Democrat. That security has allowed him to steadily rise up in the ranks of the GOP minority in the House, first as Republican conference secretary, then deputy whip, and then chairman of the now-defunct Republican Study Committee, before being elected majority whip in 1994. Though always a robust fundraiser, able to outspend challengers handily, DeLay has seen his campaign cash flow rise sharply with his increasing leadership role in the House. From the eighties through 1992, DeLay’s campaign treasury pocketed roughly $300,000 to $400,000 each two-year cycle–but in 1994 his take rose to $700,000 and in 1996, to more than $1.6 million. In 1994, DeLay quietly established what is called a “leadership PAC,” an entity maintained by many prominent Republican and Democratic House members. In essence, a leadership PAC is a legal, F.E.C.-regulated purse that can collect campaign money congressional leaders can use to finance junior colleagues’ races, winning gratitude and political loyalty in return. According to F.E.C. records, in its first year DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC) pulled in $312,000; in 1996, $681,000; and in 1998, $904,000. This year, ARMPAC is on track to collect a staggering $2 million. The list of ARMPAC political contributors is twenty pages long, from Philip Morris and the National Rifle Association to banks, oil companies, insurers, drug makers, Merrill Lynch, and Microsoft.
In tandem with his fundraising, DeLay has stood firmly against any legislation that would hamper or regulate the free flow of political money to politicians. Last year, DeLay put together a coalition to oppose even the modest reform bill before the House, assembling the Chamber of Commerce, the Christian Coalition, the National Right-to-Life PAC, and the National Association of Business PACs, among others, into a broad bloc against reform. Since 1994, he has worked against campaign reform, lobbying reform, a ban on lobbyists’ gifts to members of Congress, and even opposed congressional term limits, despite the fact that a term limits provision was a key plank in Gingrich’s Contract with America.
When the Republican members of Congress picked The Hammer as majority whip, they knew exactly what they were getting. “They needed a Rottweiler,” says A.E.I.’s Norm Ornstein. “And there aren’t many members who have that kind of toughness.”
It’s the whip’s job to maintain an hour-by-hour sense of where Republican members are on every single issue likely to come before the House, painstakingly counting votes, corralling and cajoling members, wheeling and dealing and trading favors to win over recalcitrant votes. According to those who’ve worked with DeLay, he is a master at it. “He’s the Energizer whip,” says Bill Paxon, the former Republican leader who left Congress in 1998, and who worked closely with DeLay. “He just keeps going. Power can wear you down, but in his case it just pumps him up.”
DeLay oversees a team of fifteen senior Republicans in the whip organization, who, in turn, manage more than sixty Republicans, organized on a region-by-region basis. “His whip organization has hundreds of lines of communication to groups downtown and around the country,” says Paxon. “If you go to a whip meeting, as soon as DeLay asks for help, people in those meetings start raising their hands and phones start ringing.” Most of those phones ring in the offices of K Street lobbyists, like Paxon’s current one at the giant Akin, Gump firm, for DeLay has elevated Congress’ ties to the K Street crowd to an art form. Adds Rusbuldt, the insurance agents’ lobbyist, “He is the hardest-working man in politics. He just outworks everybody else. I don’t think the guy ever sleeps.” “He is renowned as a vote counter, and as a vote grower,” says Paxon. “You don’t find many who can do that well. And you’ve got to be a full-service operation to back up the members.”
DeLay was elected whip in 1994, in a hard-fought contest that pitted him against Pennsylvania Republican Bob Walker, the hand-picked candidate of Newt Gingrich. By carefully accumulating allies in the Republican caucus–in part by spreading around excess campaign cash to strapped junior members–DeLay handily defeated Walker 119-80. Among his key allies in the election for whip was a little-known Illinois Republican named Denny Hastert, who managed DeLay’s whip campaign. In exchange, DeLay designated Hastert as his chief deputy whip–and when Gingrich collapsed in 1998, DeLay engineered the elevation of Hastert to his current post as Speaker of the House. They remain close allies, and DeLay is often described as a Wizard of Oz-like figure behind the colorless Hastert.
Though often portrayed as an ally of Gingrich during the heady days after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, in fact DeLay had a wobbly and often troubled relationship with Newt, going back to 1989, when DeLay backed Gingrich’s opponent for the post of minority leader. During Gingrich’s reign as speaker, DeLay faithfully carried out Newt’s directives, but DeLay’s allies are at pains to note that the Texan was by no means always comfortable with Gingrich’s erratic shifts. “As a team player, you have to stick by the coach,” says Rusbuldt. “When Newt was speaker, I would not blame Tom DeLay for any of Newt’s mistakes.”
In 1997, DeLay finally broke with Gingrich, joining and helping to incite an ill-starred plot to topple him and elect Bill Paxon speaker. Launched by a restless group of House conservatives, the plot drew in DeLay, Paxon, and even House Majority Leader Armey–though Armey ended up exposing the conspiracy to Gingrich. DeLay’s role in supporting the anti-Gingrich insurgency –caught on tape and broadcast on Fox News, with DeLay heard saying that he would join the rebels in voting to “vacate the chair” (i.e., to oust Gingrich)–caused a deep chill to settle in between Gingrich and DeLay for the rest of Newt’s term. Yet ironically, it also allowed DeLay and Paxon, now close allies, to strengthen their relationship and to build an independent political base around DeLay which proved enormously crucial in sustaining DeLay’s power in the wake of Gingrich’s fall.
All along, DeLay was patiently cementing his ties to Washington’s PACs and special interests. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he is able to summon up the political clout and campaign cash of the K Street lobbyists in support of the party, particularly on behalf of members whose seats are not secure and whose ability to raise cash is not so strong. “He’s the lobbyists’ front man,” says Joan Claybrook, president of Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen.
Since taking over several years ago as the House Republicans’ liaison to K Street, replacing Ohio’s John Boehner in that role, DeLay has adopted a no-holds-barred approach to the lobby, not only demanding regular infusions of PAC cash but insisting that business interests stop giving money to Democrats and even, at times, seeking to purge the business community of Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans. “Nobody has tried to use the link with lobbyists the way Tom DeLay has,” says Ornstein. “He’s tried to make sure that in every private sector group there is a loyal Republican he can rely on, and he uses them in an aggressive fundraising way.”
Two years ago, DeLay drew flak for going too far in demanding that lobbyists demonstrate fealty to the post-1994 Republican Congress, lambasting the Electronic Industries Association for naming a Democrat, former Congressman Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, to head its Washington operation. “We think,” barked DeLay, “it’s an insult to the majority to hire a partisan Democrat.” In retaliation, DeLay threatened to hold up key legislation–an action that sparked withering criticism and an eventual mild rebuke from the House ethics committee. A little later, however, the E.I.A. quietly hired a former House Republican staff member who promptly showed up at a fundraiser for DeLay’s ARMPAC.
DeLay has institutionalized his ties to K Street, too. Every Wednesday, DeLay and his chief deputy whip, Congressman Roy Blunt of Missouri, hold strategy sessions with an ever-changing group of lobbyists, often including Paxon, Rusbuldt, Lonnie Taylor of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other lobbyists, including representatives of big law firms like Boland & Madigan and Williams & Jensen. “In the last year, at least, it’s been relatively informal,” says Blunt. “It doesn’t have a name, and it’s not always the same people.” Frequently, this informal “kitchen cabinet” is expanded to create an ad hoc coalition of special interests to mobilize muscle and money behind a specific bill or legislative priority. As an example, Blunt–who presides over the Wednesday meetings–cites the coalition DeLay assembled to back the House Republicans’ $700 billion tax cut bill this summer. “We’d occasionally get a hundred people into a room to talk about what the tax cut was going to look like,” says Blunt, who says that the tax cut group was chaired by Mike Baroody of the National Association of Manufacturers. DeLay and Blunt spun out task forces, comprised of teams of lobbyists, on issues from energy to health care to banking to defense.
One of DeLay’s pet peeves is government regulation, especially when it comes to the environment–a phobia that goes back to DeLay’s days as owner of a Texas pest extermination company (see “The DeLay Chronicles,” page 12). “I’m a free market nut,” he says. Wont to call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “the Gestapo,” DeLay has pushed for repeal of the Clean Air Act, and in 1995 tried to slash the E.P.A.’s enforcement budget by one-third, adding a host of so-called “rider” amendments to appropriations bills that would have devastated environmental protection laws. One of his special interest coalitions was called Project Relief, a huge alliance of lobbyists that poured more than $10 million into campaign contributions for congressional Republicans. But that campaign, which sought a sweeping rollback of U.S. health, safety, and environmental rules, not only offended dozens of more moderate, northeastern Republicans, but sparked a mini-scandal when it was revealed that DeLay allowed business lobbyists from the American Petroleum Institute to sit down with committee staff and actually help draft the legislation.
Given the kind of intimate association DeLay has with K Street, it was only a short step to the establishment in 1999 of DeLay Inc. “DeLay Incorporated is one of the most savvy, aggressive political teams ever built,” Scott Hatch, a former DeLay aide who until recently was executive director of the National Republican Campaign Committee, told the Washington Post last year. The N.R.C.C., an official GOP organization specifically cha
ged with raising money to elect Republicans to the House, is led by Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, installed in that post largely with DeLay’s backing.
Building on his Wednesday group meetings with lobbyists, last spring DeLay launched “ROMP” (Retain Our Majority Program), as a test run of his money clout, asking his whip organization and a handful of lobbyists to help raise $1 million on behalf of ten vulnerable GOP incumbents (some of whom had played leading roles in the impeachment drive against President Clinton in 1998). Among the contributors were key Republican lobbyists such as Wayne Berman, Charles R. Black, Jr., and BellSouth’s Daniel Mattoon, a former Hastert staffer turned lobbyist. So successful was ROMP, which funneled $100,000 each to Georgian Bob Barr and nine other members, that a few months later Hastert and DeLay initiated ROMP II, a much more ambitious measure calling on lobbyists to contribute as much as $10 million to aid the Republican majority.
Next, DeLay began weaving a tapestry of interlocked organizations, led by a team of DeLay aides: Ed Buckham, DeLay’s former chief of staff and closest political adviser, who also serves as a consultant to the N.R.C.C.; Karl Gallant, former director of DeLay’s ARMPAC, who established a group called the Republican Majority Issues Committee (R.M.I.C.); and Jim Ellis, the current head of ARMPAC.
Potentially the most important part of this apparatus is the R.M.I.C., set up by DeLay and Gallant to raise $25 million for House Republicans. Taking advantage of a series of loopholes in campaign laws and F.E.C. rules, the R.M.I.C. can accept contributions of soft money in unlimited amounts without having to disclose the identity of donors, and then use the money to buy hard-edged political advertisements (the several dozen congressional races that DeLay advisers say will decide the outcome of the 2000 elections). Never before has a politician navigated through the sea of loopholes to create exactly this kind of organization, a new species. Unlike most campaign money, R.M.I.C. cash will be “soft money,” which is largely unregulated; and, unlike soft money that goes to the party organizations, the R.M.I.C.’s donations can be kept secret.
“He stretches the boundaries to the law and beyond by being involved with these shadow organizations,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a long-time campaign reform advocate. “The principal purpose of that committee is to raise secret, unlimited political contributions, which is the most dangerous money in politics.”
Alongside the R.M.I.C., DeLay is also channeling soft money from the N.R.C.C. to other shadow organizations. Last fall, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, the N.R.C.C. gave $500,000 to an obscure group called the U.S. Family Network–a donation engineered by Ed Buckham, who has close ties to the Network, and by Daniel Mattoon, the BellSouth lobbyist who quit his job to work for the N.R.C.C.. The purpose of the $500,000, Mattoon told Roll Call, is to help the Network turn out conservative Christian voters on election day. Buckham, a Washington political consultant, also helped DeLay establish the R.M.I.C. So close are the links within this network that Buckham’s offices, the Family Network, and DeLay’s ARMPAC are all headquartered in the same Capitol Hill building. And Jim Ellis, who runs ARMPAC, also works for another group called Americans for Economic Growth, which last year began running commercials against House Democrats, using money from undisclosed sources.
Naturally, DeLay Inc. has drawn fire from good-government groups, and the Democratic party has filed a formal complaint with the F.E.C. charging DeLay, the N.R.C.C., Buckham, Ellis, Gallant, and the web of organizations they’ve established, with seeking “contributions from sources illegal under Federal campaign laws.” But the F.E.C. is weak and ineffective, and unlikely to take action. Meanwhile, DeLay is rolling: the R.M.I.C. took its first group of big donors aboard a Potomac River yacht cruise and, in October, held a fundraiser in Nashville.
Ultimately, DeLay’s success this year will depend on how well he works with Bush Inc., the other Republican money powerhouse. Facing a series of clashes with President Clinton over tax and budget policy in 2000, DeLay could find himself pulled in the same direction that led Gingrich to engage in brinkmanship with the White House. In 1995, that led to the disastrous government shutdowns that caused the GOP to appear nasty and uncompromising. The Democrats, clearly, are waiting for just such a misstep by DeLay. “Republicans have acquired a brand identity which is very negative, in large part due to DeLay,” Massachusetts Democrat Patrick Kennedy told the Washington Post last year. “If he’s taking more of a leadership role over there, that’s fine by us, because we can’t take this House back alone. We need their help.”
But if the Democrats are counting on DeLay to become another Gingrich, a notorious bête noire they can use to bring down House Republicans, they might be wrong. DeLay, according to those close to him, has learned from the House GOP’s errors during the Gingrich years, and is unlikely to fall into that trap. “Over the six years that the Republicans have been in the majority, one of the things that’s become clear is that there has been a learning process,” says Gary Andres, a member of DeLay’s kitchen cabinet and a lobbyist with the Dutko Group. “Republicans have learned that they need to scale back what they’re trying to accomplish.” During the Gingrich era, says Andres, DeLay “was always one of the most aware of the need for being pragmatic.”
And then there is Bush. Having seized control of virtually the entire Republican establishment, Bush is not going to tolerate any outrageous, Gingrich-style antics from his erstwhile allies in Congress–and, in a series of shots across the bow, Bush has criticized the DeLay-led House to underscore the fact that he’s boss. DeLay, like most Republican leaders, has already endorsed the Texas Governor, and he isn’t about to upset the Bush bandwagon. Interestingly, DeLay’s chief deputy whip, Congressman Roy Blunt, is also Governor Bush’s liaison to the House. Blunt admits that the two men rarely communicate directly, but he says DeLay and Bush are still likely to work together well this year. “They are generally on the same side on issues, and yet they are both strong leaders,” says Blunt. “There will be issues where they disagree. But they know each other well enough that they will get along fine.”
Robert Dreyfuss is a Washington-based reporter who has written on national and international politics for The Nation and Mother Jones.