I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about the upcoming conclusion to the very long trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay is facing trial in Texas on charges of money laundering to aid in efforts to alter a Texas redistricting plan in the middle of the last decade. The indictment on felony charges came in early 2006, which was also around the time that the FBI was investigating DeLay for his connections to super-corrupt-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. While the investigation into DeLay’s Abramoff ties was dropped, the Texas money laundering charges lingered until now.
DeLay and the whole Abramoff scandal hold a certain significance for me as I started working on congressional corruption and transparency issues back in late-2005. This was when the Abramoff, DeLay and Randy “Duke” Cunningham corruption scandals were all coming to a head. It was a special time to come into this field as there was a lot of action and a lot to learn. It isn’t everyday that multiple members of Congress resign due to ethics concerns or imminent incarceration. I’d say that learning ethics rules and lobbying laws and the history around those issues is a lot easier when the its in the news every day.
It was also interesting to watch the end of a particularly corrupt era in congressional history. As we watch Charlie Rangel get censured next week it’s worth looking back at the early- to mid-2000s. In one week, DeLay was admonished three times by the ethics committee. These penalties likely would have been far more severe if DeLay had chosen to not accept them and force a trial as Rangel did. DeLay subsequently tried to neuter the ethics committee by purging the Republican committee members who supported the admonishments and replacing them with Texas congressman who were dependent on support from the Majority Leader. Both Cunningham and Rep. Bob Ney would have been expelled had they not resigned prior to serving jail terms. DeLay was the most powerful member of Congress at the time, Cunningham ran the powerful Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and Ney was known as the Mayor of Capitol Hill. These weren’t some back-bench losers.
If you have any doubts about how bad this period was there are any number of books that you could read. Peter Stone’s Heist, Matt Continetti’s K Street Gang and Lou Dubose and Jan Reid’s The Hammer are just a few.
Now, it’s not as if we’re out of the stew altogether, but Congress has made some advancements to clean up their act. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 increased transparency in a whole host of areas including lobbying, legislating and earmarking and banned a lot of questionable practices including certain gifts to congressmen, types of private travel and certain fundraising practices. The bill also created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which, despite battling with the ethics committee, trying to bring new accountability to Congress.
Sunlight has made a series of recommendations to the incoming House majority that can be viewed at our policy page. The implementation of all of these would go a long way to alleviating the problems in Congress that became so acute in the DeLay era, some of which continue today.