Tom DeLay’s conviction for money laundering in a Texas court this week has a vintage feeling to it. It’s partly because of the five years of, um ... holdups created by both prosecutors and DeLay’s lawyers.
The former Republican House majority leader, known as "the Hammer," was involved in various scandals, and his connections to Jack Abramoff and the funneling of corporate-lobby money helped cause a GOP implosion that led to a Democratic victory in both houses of Congress in 2006. But it’s so long ago since this case began that the “thumpin' ” of the GOP Congress has given way to the “shellacking” of Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in 2010.
DeLay’s conviction also seems sepia-toned because it reminds us of a political style and philosophy that seem to have fallen out of favor. For DeLay, the synergy between Congress and K Street wasn’t a necessary evil. It was a symbiotic relationship that was the key to government power. His biggest accomplishment in courting and controlling lobbyists was the K Street Project.
On his tight leash, Republican members would not meet with lobbyists unless the groups hired former GOP staffers for top positions. DeLay recognized that because lobbies drive a large part of the congressional agenda, the best way to keep a tight grip on everything was to have his people placed inside the lobbies. DeLay once took a bill off the floor after the trade group pushing for it hired a former Democratic congressman.
Lobbies haven’t gone away and K Street is alive and kicking. Indeed, business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent millions trying to attack President Obama’s health-care agenda. And Wall Street hasn’t been shy using its minions to fight financial reform.
But the open-mouthed, unabashed embrace of lobbyist influence in Washington seems to be on the wane—at least for now. The Tea Partiers who helped the GOP gain control of the House may use lobbyist dollars, but they have screamed too loudly against the power of K Street to do it with DeLay-style zeal. “Last year, over 15,000 individuals worked for organizations whose sole goal was to rip you off,” wrote Rand Paul, the victorious Tea Party insurgent who has said he will push legislation to bar companies with more than $1 million in federal contracts from lobbying the government. “No, not the mafia or Goldman Sachs, but another distinctly criminal class—Washington lobbyists,” Paul said.
Mickey Edwards, a former congressman from Oklahoma and chairman of the Aspen Institute, a leadership think tank, says it’s not the Tea Party that will change lobbying culture, but the specter of DeLay, who faces the possibility of decades in prison. “No one wants to be the next DeLay," he says. "I think you are going to see members acting a lot more cautious. They are really going to try to stay away from the red lines. When you see people you know going to jail you realize you have to be extra-careful.”
Whether because of grassroots pressure or the fear of jail, Hammer time in Congress appears to be officially over.