A Bug's Life

Politics and policy.
Dec. 5 1998 3:30 AM

A Bug's Life

Is exterminator-turned-Rep. Tom DeLay the most powerful man on Capitol Hill? 

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The endlessly scheming, endlessly fascinating House Republicans have a new speaker (Bob Livingston) trying to consolidate his power, a Judiciary Committee slobbering for impeachment, a veteran star (John Kasich) planning a run for president, and a troupe of telegenic youngsters (J.C. Watts, Steve Largent, etc.) gunning for national influence.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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But the bellwether of the post-Newt Republicans—the politician who could determine whether Republicans secure their slim majority or degenerate into their usual fratricidal anarchy—may be the House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

DeLay, whose political style is a tight smile and a knee in the groin, entered Congress in 1984 after a successful career as an exterminator. He is a kind of superbug himself, the roach that can survive anything. In 1989, DeLay's career went into a tailspin after he promoted an unsuccessful challenge to Newt Gingrich, who was seeking to be minority whip. But a few years later, he was back. In 1994, when the GOP won control of Congress, he was elected whip, the third ranking House Republican. (The whip, in case you were wondering, counts votes to make sure his party has enough to pass a bill.) In 1997, he joined the coup against Gingrich. It failed, but again he suffered no consequences. This year he helped devise the strategy that led to the GOP's election losses. Even so, House Republicans unanimously re-elected him as whip, even as they tossed out Gingrich and his lieutenants.

In fact, he is stronger than he's ever been and is perhaps stronger than anyone in the House, including incoming Speaker Livingston. As whip, Delay rules an organization of 60-odd Republican members. Livingston relied on that whip organization to secure his election as speaker and so owes an enormous debt to the whip. DeLay is also taking over as the House Republicans' liaison to lobbyists and corporations, a critical fund-raising and strategy-making job. And while other Republican leaders are cowering from Flytrap, DeLay has made himself the House's leading impeachment advocate. He goes on national TV to insist there are enough Republican House votes to impeach Clinton, and he has vowed to do everything in his power to block a censure measure.

DeLay is traditionally caricatured as the raging id of the Republican Congress—no small achievement in that band of nutters—but that explains him too crudely. In fact, he embodies the psychological crisis of House Republicans: Are we madmen or pragmatists? DeLay is, to be sure, as conservative and vitriolic as anyone in the House. He's a rabid Clinton hater, calls the Environmental Protection Agency "the Gestapo," and loathes Democrats with every cell in his body. He entirely lacks gentility, treating opponents with disdain and bad humor.

But his good fortune is that he's an ideologue without being a visionary. The Republican caucus is chock-full of woolly dreamers and theoreticians (Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey were college professors). What tempers his conservative fury is that he's an intensely practical politician. The whip's job is one of the most rational and process dependent in Congress. In counting votes, DeLay must suspend his hothead principles. He has the gut of a true believer but the head of an accountant.

The question, for both DeLay and for House Republicans, is which organ will rule. When he reins in his bomb-throwing instincts, he's a superb political operator. He is universally considered the Hill's best vote counter. He has perfected all the coercive techniques—from gentle massages to arm twists to poison—required to keep Republicans voting the party line. "No one likes him," says one leadership staffer, "but everyone fears him." (He has translated those techniques to fund raising. DeLay, a k a "The Hammer," has achieved the impossible: His fund-raising shakedowns have made people feel sorry for D.C. lobbyists. Click for more on this.) But his fervid principles frequently overcome his sense. In 1995, DeLay—who has despised environmental laws since his termite-killing days—tried to eviscerate the EPA by attaching riders to appropriations bills. The riders not only failed but also confirmed the image of congressional Republicans as anti-environmental extremists and gave the Clinton-Gore campaign a potent 1996 campaign issue ("Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment"). The riders even annoyed businesses that would have benefited from them. His proposals were so extreme and so unsuccessful that he spoiled future opportunities for less controversial reforms.

Similarly, DeLay championed the 1995-96 government shutdown that devastated the GOP's reputation. When the Senate tried to settle the standoff with the president, DeLay told fellow House Republicans: "Screw the Senate. It's time for all-out war." Oops.

At his sliest and coolest, DeLay could be the Newtless House Republicans' strongest asset. He has a sharp political mind. He's capable of cooperating with moderates when it's politically expedient. (He recently ensured the election of moderate Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.) DeLay champions the libertarian economic agenda that corporate America adores. And most important, he alone of House GOP leaders commands the loyalty of the hysterical conservatives who toppled Newt. You can almost imagine DeLay bullying the Republican caucus into behaving, bringing a measure of unity to a party that's allergic to it.

But all signs suggest that DeLay will heed his gut. In October, for example, The Hammer attempted his biggest shakedown yet. He went ballistic when he heard that the Electronic Industries Alliance was going to appoint former Democratic Rep. David McCurdy as its president. DeLay stopped two uncontroversial trade bills that would have benefited the EIA and told the association it would lose all GOP access unless it hired a Republican instead. The EIA ignored the threats and appointed McCurdy anyway. The whip's extortionate style may infuriate the big corporate contributors the GOP depends on. "There is huge resentment to the Hammer approach," says a Republican staffer involved with PAC fund raising. "Everyone thinks DeLay is crazy. They don't respond to being pushed around like that."

DeLay also won't surrender his impeachment obsession. As a clever political strategist, he surely knows that impeachment would be a disastrous, chaotic mess that could only discredit Republicans. But as an ideologue, DeLay can't control himself. In fact, he seems to be the person who pushed the Judiciary Committee to expand its investigation into campaign finance. The irony of DeLay's activism is that his intransigence may prevent any punishment of Clinton. If impeachment fails in the House, DeLay's stony opposition may defeat censure as well, allowing the president to escape scot-free.

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