Ethics Woes Nothing New in the House

If you were the embattled leader of the House Republicans you could not ask for a better statement of support than this one from the House majority whip.

The whip appeared on NBC-TV's Meet the Press, the Sunday program that often serves as official Washington's unofficial trial court of the air. The whip said he had seen "no erosion whatsoever" in the confidence of his party colleagues in their leader. Days and weeks of stories about money changing hands in apparent efforts to circumvent rules and laws were nothing but "blatant partisan politics."

It was Dec. 29, the last Sunday in 1996, and the embattled leader was Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. The whip going to bat for him without a hint of hesitation was Tom DeLay of Texas. And that turned out to be enough. Gingrich was returned to the speakership for the new Congress taking the oath in January 1997, re-elected despite the public misgivings of several Republicans and a determined assault by the Democrats.

The kicker is that just six months later, Gingrich was very nearly deposed, not by Democrats or the news media but by a coup d'etat within his own caucus. The abortive rebellion was played out behind closed doors, and the details have never been fully disclosed. But DeLay was involved on the side of the conspirators. He escaped any negative career consequences because his post was elective, and because DeLay was by then more popular in his caucus than his boss.

The Republicans got past that bad patch in the summer of 1997 and Gingrich finished that Congress as speaker. But when the GOP lost seats in the November 1998 House elections, the blame came his way and he resigned. DeLay might have become speaker then but he demurred, putting forward instead his chief deputy whip, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who has held the job since with DeLay in a strong supportive role.

DeLay survives today as the House majority leader largely on the same strength he had back in the 1990s: popularity among his peers that was equal to (and eventually greater than) Gingrich's own. After DeLay was admonished for ethical lapses three times last year by the Ethics Committee, his colleagues were willing to rally 'round and change the rules governing that panel. When an indictment back in Texas became a possibility, those colleagues were willing to drop the rule that requires a caucus leader under indictment to step down.

But since then, the case against DeLay has been amplified by multiple revelations regarding his travel and expenses and various money-raising schemes. And the case against him has reached the point where comparisons between his troubles and those of previous leaders are inevitable.

The arc of the DeLay story has recalled not only Gingrich's but also that of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. Wright became the first speaker to resign under pressure in the summer of 1989. Among the charges investigated by a bipartisan ethics panel were small-scale money-raising operations including a vanity book that Wright's friends and patrons could buy in bulk to show their appreciation.

Wright also had a business friend back in Fort Worth, George Mallick, whose joint ventures with the speaker provided a field day for investigative reporters at dozens of news organizations, stoking the fire for weeks. DeLay has found himself discomfited by his association with Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist and contributor. Stories about Abramoff billing Indian tribe clients for tens of millions of dollars have triggered a federal investigation (and shocked more than a few Washington watchers who thought they had seen it all).

By the time the ethics report on Wright was read out on the floor in 1989, he had worn out his welcome among his party's rank and file. His win-at-any-cost tactics on floor votes had antagonized many Democrats along with all the long-suffering Republican minority. Wright also had botched a 51 percent pay raise that many members were planning to pocket without having to cast a public vote on it.

Gingrich might also have ridden out the storm at the end of his speakership had he not exhausted his own well of good will with his caucus. Gingrich was often imperious and obsessed with his personal duels against President Bill Clinton. The House Republicans, once in thrall to the man who had led them out of the wilderness after 40 years in the minority, in time grew weary of his mercurial ways.

The difference with DeLay — what's keeping him afloat — is his reservoir of support from officeholders he helped elect and interest groups he has empowered. For now, they seem willing to continue that support.

But DeLay has only begun to be famous. As speakers, Wright and Gingrich had been well known figures and symbols of Congress well before their respective downfalls began. DeLay has usually shunned this kind of attention, and until recent months it has not been forced upon him.

That is changing. Quite apart from the ethics issues, in Washington or back home in Texas, DeLay is becoming a lightning rod on the issues. He has become a prominent spokesman for social conservatives, and especially for their wrath at federal judges. He was the driving force behind last month's congressional intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, a move that proved highly unpopular with the general public.

DeLay appears to believe that a high profile on such issues strengthens his personal political standing on Capitol Hill. But by bringing more attention to himself he brings more attention to the stories and controversies now swirling about him. And that could be hazardous, both to his personal case and to his causes as well.

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