The Lilliput Congress

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This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Here's what will be important about the saga of Tom DeLay in 25 years: this turn of the century will be seen as period when the power of Congress to legislate and provide political leaders was vastly diminished and the repeated take-downs of party leaders in Congress was a key element in that decline.

And that is all that will be important about Tom DeLay in 25 years.

Regardless of whether DeLay - GOP congressman from Texas since 1984, and House Majority Leader since 2003 - gets to keep some or all of his jobs, he is but the latest in a long line of Speakers and Leaders leeched to death, or near death, by the suckers of scandal and perquisites.

The costs of this for Congress and for the country have been serious. While politicians do each other in, little else gets done.

In the modern era, this began in 1989. In June, petty pilfery forced the Democratic Speaker of the House, Jim Wright to resign with words of melodramatic sacrifice, "Let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that has grown among us."

Well, there ain't been no propitiating going on at the Capitol in the 16 years since and there's been a Texas torrent of bad will.

Two weeks before Wright resigned in a huff, his whip, Tony Coelho, quit in a cloud of his own scandal. The next whip, William Gray, resigned two years later.

In 1998, Republican Newton Leroy , who led the pack against Wright, resigned as Speaker of the House - devoured by forces he helped unleash. Republicans then chose Louisiana's Bob Livingston to succeed Gingrich, but he was forced out of Congress before he could even assume the position. In 2002, the leader of the Senate Republicans, Trent Lott, was forced out of his leadership post. Sort of a Gilded Age for Congressional graft, isn't it?

Maybe. Maybe the pols of this turn of the century are worse than their Congressional ancestors. But I doubt that today's PAC-addicts quite compare to the rogues of Tammany Hall and Cook County from times past.

Maybe it's just that today's partisans find it too often in their short-term interests to practice Congressional cannibalism and they can't stop. They keep eating their own. In public.

Admittedly, the media is a ferocious enabler and the main vehicle for the destruction of an officeholder. But American journalism has always loved scandal; the pamphleteers of the early republic make even today's tabloids look like tepid porridge. In the end, it's the pols who sign the death certificates. Still, there's no denying that the press, and especially the explosion of media outlets from cable to blogs, is a huge factor; there are probably other factors I also ignore.

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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