The Hammer falls?

September 29, 2005

When it comes to the raw use of political power, no one in Washington has been more successful during the past decade than Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay.

Others may have shaped his party's message and offered its vision to voters. But it fell to the former exterminator from Sugarland to oversee the nuts-and-bolts logistics of getting candidates elected and bills passed. He was particularly good at greasing the machine with cash from favor-seekers.

This skill, and his willingness to push ethics restrictions and campaign finance laws to the breaking point, helped Mr. DeLay radically change the face of Texas politics and rewrite the playbook in Washington as well.

Yet hubris has its tipping point, which may have come for Mr. DeLay in yesterday's indictment by a Texas grand jury on charges that he conspired to channel corporate contributions into Texas legislative campaigns, where they are prohibited by state law.

Mr. DeLay was quick to brand the charge "political retribution" by a "rogue" Democratic prosecutor abusing the power of his office to topple a Republican nemesis. But it forced Mr. DeLay to give up his treasured post of majority leader, and fits into a broader tapestry of questionable DeLay activities, including some for which he was admonished by a Republican-led House Ethics Committee.

After all the years of such effective service to his party, Mr. DeLay has now become a liability.

He isn't alone, however. The DeLay saga is just the most visible illustration of the decay and deterioration that sets in when one party holds power for too long. A common theme is cronyism.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one of Mr. DeLay's former aides and closest friends, is under federal investigation; a White House official linked to Mr. Abramoff resigned last week after being charged with attempting to obstruct that investigation.

President Bush is being battered in the polls, in part because he left the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the hands of political hacks who proved clueless when the monster storm Katrina arrived.

And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is the focus of two federal investigations for selling stock in his family's health care business shortly before a pessimistic earnings report prompted a sharp price drop.

No Democrat should gloat, though. Power corrupts on a bipartisan basis, which is how arrogant Democrats lost their 40-year grasp on Congress in 1994.

The only remedy is a healthy house-cleaning from time to time. Surely, the next one is due soon.

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