If the toothless lobbying "reform" bill approved by the House and Senate is any indication, we haven't seen the last of the likes of Jack Abramoff or Tom DeLay.
DeLay exits Congress June 9, but his influence lives on.
His former deputy, Dennis Hastert, remains Speaker of the House. His key liaison to lobbyists on K Street, Roy Blunt, is majority whip. Even John Boehner, a rival from the Gingrich years, retained three DeLay staffers when he became majority leader. More important, the Hammer left many nails behind among the lower tier of House GOP leadership members, committee chairmen, party spokesmen and fundraisers he propelled to power. These are the people who will shape the GOP's agenda for years to come. Here are five disciples who are carrying on DeLay's legacy.
Eric Cantor (age 43). A fast-rising third-term Congressman, Cantor distinguished himself as DeLay's "chief defender," according to Roll Call. He was appointed chief deputy majority whip — the fourth-most powerful position in the House — at the ripe age of 39. Cantor became the youngest member of the House leadership after a DeLay staffer recommended he be named Blunt's deputy over a host of older and more qualified candidates. Thus, when DeLay's ethical problems piled up in 2004 and '05, the Virginian held countless press conferences and strategy sessions with conservative activists to protect his leader.
As the only Jewish Republican in the House, Cantor provides a crucial link between pro-Israel donors and Christian conservatives. Through his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax law and Social Security, Cantor raised more money for his colleagues than any other House Republican in the last election cycle. Like DeLay, Cantor is also tied to Abramoff, having accepted $13,000 from the disgraced lobbyist's Indian clients, written letters on behalf of tribes and held eight events at Abramoff's restaurant, Signatures. Cantor even had a sandwich named after him at Abramoff's deli, Stacks: the Eric Cantor, a "tuna-based stacker," changed by Cantor to roast beef on challah.
Jack Kingston (age 51). As vice chairman of the Republican Conference Committee and the number-six House Republican, Georgia's Kingston sculpts the GOP's message, producing talking points for fellow members and sound bites for conservative media. National Journal rated him the most conservative Congressman in 2004. But unlike DeLay, Kingston is an affable, smooth Southerner who jokes with Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher. Kingston's relentless defense of DeLay at times merited its own comedy show. When the TV series Law & Order referred to DeLay negatively in one episode, Kingston accused the show of associating his boss with a "racist, anti-Semitic judge killer." After Representative Chris Bell filed an ethics complaint against DeLay resulting in an unprecedented three rebukes, Kingston called it a "non-story." When DeLay received two indictments in Texas on money-laundering charges, Kingston circulated a glossy brochure titled "The 'Hammer' Has a Big Heart," boasting of DeLay's "affections for his bichons frisés, Baily and Taylor, and his miniature dachshund, Scooter," reported the Washington Post. Describing how DeLay maintained his resilience, Kingston said, "he knows Jesus personally."
Patrick McHenry (age 30). The youngest member of the 109th Congress, McHenry is the "it" boy of the GOP establishment. DeLay recently named McHenry one of his potential successors, an endorsement the freshman accepted enthusiastically. "I'm blown away," McHenry told the Washington Times. "I'm so excited that Tom DeLay would say that about me" — a fitting compliment to a pupil who's earned a reputation as the party's "attack-dog-in-training." DeLay was the first Washington pol to contact McHenry after he won the Republican primary in North Carolina's rural 10th Congressional district, promptly sending his campaign $10,000. Upon election, DeLay shepherded McHenry through Washington, with cushy seats on the Budget and Financial Services committees, a communications position within the GOP's fundraising arm and a role in Blunt's whip operation. McHenry returned the favors by attacking House minority leader Nancy Pelosi for alleged travel violations and by voting, along with just nineteen other Republicans, to rewrite House ethics rules permanently to insulate DeLay. McHenry's clearly a quick learner: He's hired Grover Norquist's press secretary and dated a former assistant of Karl Rove.
Richard Pombo (age 45). With his cowboy hats and ostrich-skin boots, Pombo fancies himself a "Capitol Cowboy." To government watchdogs, he's "Dirty Dick," a militant anti-environmentalist and Abramoff crony. The California rancher has raised hundreds of thousands from big business for fellow Republicans and enjoyed close ties with recently indicted DeLay staffer Tony Rudy. Pombo and fellow DeLay protégé John Doolittle (himself a top Republican under investigation for assisting Abramoff) helped kill a government investigation into a Houston-based DeLay donor responsible for a $1.6 billion savings-and-loan scandal in Texas. At the same time Pombo's staff was cultivating ties to Abramoff, DeLay helped Pombo leapfrog ahead of six more-senior Republicans to become chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian gaming. At age 42, Pombo was the youngest chairman in the House. "This is the guy DeLay wanted," former House Ethics Committee chair Joel Hefley remarked. Pombo has used the position to try to destroy the Endangered Species Act, reward big-donor polluters, ignore calls for an investigation into Abramoff's tribal clients, give his chief of staff two salaries and pay his wife and brother $357,000 over the past four years for "consulting" work. More recently, Pombo has come under fire for renting an RV for a family vacation and sticking taxpayers with the bill.
Tom Reynolds (age 55). As head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Reynolds breakfasts with Karl Rove and lunches with Dick Cheney. When Reynolds inherited the upstate New York seat of DeLay ally Bill Paxon (now a top K Street lobbyist), DeLay said he "made sure [Reynolds] had every opportunity presented to him to exploit his abilities." Reynolds became the only freshman to become a deputy on DeLay's whip team and only the second newcomer ever named to the House Rules Committee, which controls House debate. In 2001 DeLay personally persuaded New York Republicans to draw Reynolds a more Republican district. With DeLay's backing, Reynolds became a player on the Ways and Means Committee, cultivating a plum fundraising base, and chair of the NRCC, helping to expand the GOP majority in 2004. He emulated DeLay's fundraising prowess — coming up with $1 million for House Republicans in the last election — and replicated his lavish lifestyle. In the past three years, Reynolds has taken more lobbyist-funded trips than return visits to his district. Small wonder that Reynolds calls DeLay "a darn good mentor of mine." He's frequently mentioned as a possible future Speaker of the House.
Of course, recent polls indicate that the House DeLay built might yet collapse. If Republicans lose their majority in November, or a significant number of seats, a major shake-up could derail the careers of quite a few DeLay disciples. The guilt is only likely to accumulate. Two of DeLay's top aides have already been indicted in the Abramoff investigation. Reports suggest that DeLay's key spiritual adviser and lobbyist, Ed Buckham, along with another former protégé, Ohio Representative Bob Ney, are in the cross-hairs of the law. And ABC News claims that Dennis Hastert is "in the mix." DeLay himself faces trial in Texas and remains a target in the Abramoff probe. As his disciples are learning, it's no longer a good day to be a comrade of DeLay.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation, a contributor to The Notion and a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
By Ari Berman
Reprinted with permission from The Nation