Ballot Box

Corrupt? Absolutely.

Tom DeLay unites the critics of the Republican Congress.

DeLay: figurehead for corruption?

Earlier this year, Tom DeLay correctly diagnosed the disease that infects his congressional majority. “If 1994 was the year we stopped thinking like a permanent minority,” DeLay told Republicans gathered for a February party retreat in Philadelphia, “2004 is the year we start thinking like a permanent majority: unified, aggressive, rightfully confident of victory.” DeLay, of course, thought permanent-majority status would be a good thing for the GOP, but nine months later he’s become the symbol of a party corrupted by its lock on power. When House Republicans voted last month to allow members who have been indicted to keep their leadership positions—a decision that ought to be remembered as the “DeLay rule”—political writers from David Brooks to E.J. Dionne to John Podhoretz howled that Republicans had finally completed their slow transformation into the entrenched, arrogant, and sleazy Democratic majority they defeated in 1994.

The vote on the DeLay rule has settled a little-noticed debate, which predated the November election, over the nature of the GOP’s corruption: Was it procedural or substantive? Liberals tended to argue the former, as James Traub did in an essay for the New York Times Magazine in October. By ignoring procedural and democratic niceties, Traub argued, the Republican leadership “has been able to convert smaller minorities into more effective control—and more extreme policies.” Conservatives, with some exceptions, worried more about ideological corruption, about the betrayal of the ideals that catapulted Republicans to power. What’s the use of a Republican Congress, some wondered, if it spends like a Democratic one?

Conveniently, the DeLay vote has enabled liberals and conservatives to agree: Are congressional Republicans out-of-touch plutocrats, concerned only with using the power of incumbency to perpetuate their rule? Or are they ideological traitors who have forsaken the principles that got them elected in the first place? The answer is yes. In 1994, Republicans ran on both substance and procedure. They wanted to change what Congress worked on, but they also wanted to change the way it worked. Many liberals thought the 1994 Congress had a salutary effect on the institution, but over time many of the reforms it instituted have been repealed or weakened, including term limits for the Speaker of the House and committee chairmen, and bans on corporate junkets and lobbyist-paid meals. The DeLay rule is just the latest example.

The liberal and conservative critiques of GOP corruption have always been interdependent. Take pork. If you like federal spending but dislike Republicans, you tend to criticize pork-barreling as an attempt to perpetuate incumbents’ hold on office. Likewise, if you loathe government dollars but like Republicans, you attack pork projects as the abandonment of small-government principle. Either way, you’re criticizing the same thing.

Examining the campaigns of the two “giant-killers” of 1994 and 2004, George Nethercutt and John Thune, illustrates the Republican transformation. Nethercutt beat Tom Foley, then the Speaker of the House, by running as a citizen-outsider, and Eastern Washington voters were embarrassed about being on the receiving end of so many government contracts.  “It’s basically pork. Even though we live here, it just isn’t right,” one voter told Time magazine. Ross Perot campaigned against Foley before the election and asked voters at a rally, “Are you for sale?” This year, Thune attacked Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle for not “making South Dakota a priority,” meaning not bringing home enough bacon. Thune blasted Daschle for not pushing through an energy bill that would bring South Dakota more ethanol subsidies. After the election, he told the Los Angeles Times that his victory was a mandate for “getting things done.” Republicans used to be opposed to a government that got things done.

The speed with which Republicans have forgotten their “core values,” as David Brooks put it after the vote on the DeLay rule, has been shocking. Earlier this year, a Boston Globe article made a few comparisons between the 1993-94 Congress that Newt Gingrich ousted and the one now ending. The Republican Congress added 3,407 pork barrel projects to appropriation bills in conference committee, compared to 47 for 1994, the last year Democrats held both houses. The Republican Congress allowed only 28 percent of the bills on the floor to be amended, “barely more than half of what Democrats allowed in their last session in power in 1993-94.” The number of nonappropriationsbills “open to revision has dropped to 15 percent.”

Now that the Republicans have turned into the Democrats, it will be interesting to learn whether the opposite happens, too. If the majority party continues its decline, expect more and more Democrats to ask a famous Republican question. Where’s the outrage?