DeLaying the Inevitable

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has Ronald Reagan beat by a mile when it comes to being a Teflon politician.

Last month, three of DeLay's aides were indicted on charges of money laundering related to DeLay's successful efforts to redistrict Texas -- although DeLay has distanced himself from the ruling. And on Sept. 30, the House Ethics Committee gave DeLay its least severe punishment even as it revealed that he offered to support Republican Representative Nick Smith's son's congressional campaign if Smith supported the Medicare bill during the marathon vote in November. Smith voted against it, and his son, Brad, never got DeLay's support, according to a list of endorsements on Brad Smith's website. Brad Smith lost his primary
race in August.

The ethics committee still has not taken action on Democratic Representative Chris Bell's formal ethics complaint against DeLay, which was filed in June. Bell's complaint charged that DeLay may have illegally solicited and accepted political contributions from an energy company in exchange for action on a bill; laundered illegal corporate contributions to influence Texas legislative races; and used his office to urge federal agencies to find Texas legislators who fled the state to protest redistricting efforts. (Keep in mind that federal marshals were unable to serve former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon with a subpoena to answer questions from Congress on Sept. 29 about lobbying fees he received from Indian tribes.)

“Nobody is above the law, not even Tom DeLay,” Bell told me on Sept. 30 as the ethics committee was weighing whether to take further action on his complaint. “His conduct has raised numerous questions and those questions need to be answered.”

DeLay, not surprisingly, has accused his critics of sour grapes, saying Democrats are unhappy because they lost seats in the Texas redistricting process -- losses that are likely to keep House Democrats in the minority until the next census. He's also pointed out that his aides -- not him -- have gotten into trouble.

In a Sept. 21 statement released after the indictments were handed down, DeLay remarked, “I have not been subpoenaed, I have not been asked to testify, and I have not been called as a witness. They've made clear this investigation is not about me.”

DeLay's other defense is that he didn't know he was doing anything wrong. In a statement released after the Medicare decision on Sept. 30, DeLay said, “I would never knowingly violate the rules of the House. I deeply believe that as members of the House we must conduct ourselves at all times in a manner that reflects credibly on this institution.”

But there are enough connections in Bell's complaint before the Ethics Committee to make one suspicious, at the very least. The three men who were indicted on charges of money laundering and accepting corporate contributions are Jim Ellis, who runs DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC); John Colyandro, former head of DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC); and Warren RoBold, a DeLay fundraiser. As any Washingtonian knows, the men and women who collect and dole out cash to candidates are some of the most important players in this town. It's beyond unbelievable to think they didn't consult with DeLay about their actions.

Members of the House Ethics Committee know how important contributions are, too. On Sept. 23, the chairman and ranking member felt the need to release a statement saying that committee members are able to review cases before them that involve members who have contributed to their campaigns.

Yet it's exactly this conflict that makes serving on the ethics committee one of the least desirable assignments in Congress -- members have to investigate and judge their colleagues. That's especially hard in a campaign year. With one week left before Congress is about to recess and four weeks until Election Day, it's unlikely that Republican members of the committee want to anger their party's most powerful leader.

The matter instead will likely be dispatched with quickly and quietly during the lame-duck session in November -- lost for most Americans in the haze of turkey trimmings and holiday shopping -- or early next year, when attention in Washington is focused on the
new president and the 109th Congress' agenda. The Republicans' win-at-all-costs mentality will continue, because there will be no reason for it to stop.

As for Bell, a freshman who was redistricted out of his seat, he plans to spend the fall helping his Texas colleagues who are “fighting for their gerrymandered lives” and aiding John Kerry's presidential campaign. A failure by the committee to act on his complaint “would suggest that the House is ethically bankrupt,” he told me. Not a very encouraging lesson for a lawmaker to learn during his sole term in Congress. But then again, this is Tom DeLay's House, where the rules simply don't stick.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week.