The worm turns. Former Republican House Majority leader Tom DeLay is resigning his seat in Congress. The news came 72 hours after the second of two former top aides pleaded guilty to running a “criminal enterprise” from inside DeLay’s office. Their admissions are part of the wider-ranging congressional-corruption probe into the activities of conservative lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to his central role in an influence-peddling scheme.
DeLay is already under indictment in Texas and awaiting trial for charges that he laundered money and violated state campaign-finance laws as a result of his successful bid to replace Democrats with Republicans by radically gerrymandering 32 Texas House districts. In coming months, the US Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of those moves.
While DeLay has yet to be indicted in the Abramoff scandal or named as a target by federal investigators, a third former DeLay staffer has been so named. In an unrelated investigation, one of his most prominent campaign contributors has pleaded guilty to crimes including conspiracy; wire, tax, and mail fraud; and corruption of public officials.
The noose, it appears, is tightening around the neck of the man who was once the most powerful in Congress — and perhaps the nation. His fellow Texan, George W. Bush, may be president. But it was DeLay, perhaps even more than Vice-President Dick Cheney, who, in most domestic matters, pulled Bush’s strings from his once seemingly impregnable House power base. And although Abramoff has told associates that he has nothing on DeLay, nobody is saying what DeLay’s former aides are telling investigators.
DeLay’s surprise resignation from Congress may save him from certain political defeat. But his legacy of sleaze will live on. From his days as right-hand man to the now-disgraced former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is enjoying a surprising political rehabilitation thanks to the collective amnesia of the American public, DeLay (or “The “Hammer”) has wallowed in his reputation as a political thug. He wore the jackboots of the GOP’s top thought cop with vengeful pride. And to secure his preeminence, DeLay masterminded the election of that amiable clod from Ohio, Dennis Hastert, to be Gingrich’s successor — hardly a competitor for power. Along the way, he never encountered a compromise he didn’t despise.
The pathetic and internationally embarrassing impeachment of the undeniably popular Bill Clinton would not have succeeded but for DeLay’s smarmy muscle. But that outrage at least had the patina of legality. DeLay demonstrated his penchant for mob rule when, during the tense days following the stalemated 2000 presidential election, he stage-managed a riot by a teaming horde of preppily clad Republicans (it may sound surreal, but it’s true) inside Miami’s downtown Government Center, so spooking the Dade County canvassing board reviewing local election returns that the board summoned police and stopped its proceedings. This was the little-appreciated but pivotal event that propelled Florida’s 2000 presidential election before the US Supreme Court.