House Majority Leader DeLay Criticized over Ethics Concerns
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KWAME HOLMAN: Tom DeLay opened to reporters and cameras today a previously closed-to-the-media speech on tax legislation before a large gathering of Republican supporters. Advisors reportedly convinced him that he might benefit by allowing cameras to show him discussing legislative issues in a friendly environment.
REP. TOM Delay: I really am happy to be amongst you all and be able to share with you some of my thoughts about the goals President Bush and the Congress are working toward over the next couple of years.
KWAME HOLMAN: But earlier today, when asked off-camera about a new spate of possible ethics violations, Delay said he felt confident he’d done nothing wrong.
Over the past week, the Washington Post has run a series of stories detailing trips Delay and other Republicans took to London, Scotland, and South Korea, that, as it turns out, were paid for by lobbyists interested in influencing legislation.
Meanwhile, a trial in Texas has revealed new details about DeLay’s involvement with a political action committee that illegally sent corporate money to GOP state legislative candidates in 2002. Those candidates helped Texas Republicans win the legislature, which in turn redrew the state’s congressional districts under Delay’s urging. That allowed Republicans to win six more seats in the House of Representatives this year.
The House Ethics Committee had planned to consider Delay’s involvement in the Texas redistricting issue this year, but so far it hasn’t been able to get much business done. Late last year, the committee did act, admonishing Delay three times for inappropriate behavior, once for improperly trying to influence a member’s vote on Medicare legislation.
But much has changed. Colorado Republican Joel Hefley, who chaired the committee that admonished Delay, has been replaced by Washington state’s Doc Hastings. And committee Democrats have refused to adopt new rule changes the Republican-controlled House pushed through on the first day of the new Congress in January.
One current rule requires that an ethics investigation begin automatically if the committee fails to act on an ethics complaint within 45 days. The proposed change would allow the complaint to expire if the committee fails to act within 45 days. Democrats claim any number of scenarios, from scheduling conflicts and recesses to simply partisan foot-dragging, could allow a complaint to expire.
On the floor of the House of Representatives today, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi introduced a resolution calling on Speaker Dennis Hastert to appoint a bipartisan task force to resolve the ethics dispute. California Republican Jerry Lewis immediately responded, calling for a vote to table, or block the measure. And on that vote Republicans prevailed, with only former Ethics Committee Chairman Hefley siding with the Democrats.
JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes it from there.
GWEN IFILL: All eyes on Tom Delay Joining us to talk about the ethics questions swirling around the House Majority Leader are Chellie Pingree of Common Cause, a bipartisan public watchdog group; and Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund, a Republican lobbying firm. Chellie Pingree, with all these mounting questions rising that are swirling around about Tom Delay, what bothers you most?
CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, I think it’s the whole picture that we are looking at here. You have a member of Congress in a position of leadership who clearly has been pushing a lot of ethics questions right to the edge. He was admonished, as you saw, by the committee itself.
And then it looked like Republican leadership decided things had gotten a little bit out of control. They removed Congressman Hefley as the chair of the committee; they also took out two other Republican members and got rid of two senior staffers who had been there for a very long time and at the same time they propose the changes to the rules so the Ethics Committee would have less teeth than before.
Now you have coming to light a variety of new accusations about ethics violations, yet there is no committee to enforce them. I think the questions that it raises is do we have here a fox guarding the hen house in the sense where a very powerful member of leadership can actually dismantle the committee, take away the rules.
And in a kind of ironic way, today he is now saying "Well, I wouldn’t mind discussing these trips that I’ve taken in front of the Ethics Committee. They can feel free to look into them." But we don’t have an Ethics Committee. It refused to constitute itself. The process is basically broken, gone. And the irony is where does he even go if he wants to get some discussion of what is going on?
GWEN IFILL: Stephen Moore, is this a case of where there is smoke there must be fire?
STEPHEN MOORE: Well, what bothers me most about this, Gwen is that I’ve known Tom Delay for 20 years. In my opinion, he is one of the most honorable and honest men I’ve met in politics. I’ve met a lot of politicians in my lifetime. I do think this is a smear campaign, and I think it’s being raised for a number of reasons.
One, he was the most effective whip when he was the whip for the Republicans in the House, and now he is one of the most effective majority leaders that we’ve seen in Congress maybe since the days of Sam Rayburn.
He is very effective, and that’s something that annoys liberals and Democrats. But also, he is very conservative. He’s probably one of the most conservative leaders in Congress we’ve seen in 50 years.
And I think that his conservatism is something that also annoys and infuriates a lot of liberals who now see a chance of just one innuendo and half truth after another to try to force him out of Congress before he is really accused of or convicted of anything.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s go over some of the questions which have been raised. Does it not bother you at all about who paid for the trips to Britain, who paid for the trips to South Korea, whether a foreign government underwrote them?
STEPHEN MOORE: It does bother me somewhat, but one of the allegations made in the Washington Post over the last couple of days, Gwen, is that they’re basically saying, "Well, Tom Delay took money from lobbyists and then he voted with these interests who paid him money."
Well, you know, welcome to Washington. This is something that every congressman and senator does. I mean Ted Kennedy takes money from unions, and then he votes for union interests. Does that make him dishonest or unethical?
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Chellie Pingree that. What is the difference?
CHELLIE PINGREE: One of the challenges, is now whether you say, "the Democrats do it, why worry about it," is that that’s the point of having an ethics process. The reason we need a very strong Ethics Committee with teeth who’s willing to take on these very difficult challenges is so that we can always make sure that the public has confidence in the body and that the members of Congress don’t do anything that would shame or embarrass the body.
That’s the whole point here. Now the fact is, the original admonishments to Tom Delay came from a bipartisan vote of a bipartisan Ethics Committee. It was a very unusual move from a committee that had a seven-year truce. Nothing was going to happen.
They finally came out and they said something about its original violations. So you have to look at this as someone who has already come under question and the truth is on these particular trips or these questions, there is now no functioning body with anyone able to decide.
STEPHEN MOORE: I agree with that; I actually do. I think that the Republicans have acted wrongly in essentially dismantling the Ethics Committee and I think you’re right; they should put teeth back into it.
GWEN IFILL: But isn’t Mr. Delay the leader of his party in the House? Wouldn’t he have something to say about what was wrongly done, as you described it?
STEPHEN MOORE: If you go back to the first allegations made against Tom Delay, the thing that he might be in most trouble for is what happened in Texas with respect to a group that he ran called Trim Pack. Now, this is an organization that he wasn’t even a board member of. He was an advisory person.
The prosecutor in Texas has been a grandstander. He has been going after Tom Delay for two years on this. There is no indictment. And there is this cloud now under Tom Delay This is why I think it is so unfair. Just by holding out this risk that he might be indicted, he can’t function very well as majority leader.
GWEN IFILL: We’ve seen these kinds of clouds, these kinds of ethical clouds before involving leaders of the House, Jim Wright, the Democrat, and Newt Gingrich, the Republican, both of them seemed to have ridden it out for a while, then they didn’t. Is that – is it innuendo which is driving these people out of office, or is there actual evidence of wrongdoing?
CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, again, you know, particularly from the Common Cause perspective and we’ve worked on this for 35 years, you know, whether it is Speaker Wright or the Lincoln bedroom, we always think that it is important to investigate these concerns, clear the air and decide whether or not the member did something that was inappropriate.
But, you know, the issue around Texas, you know clearly that’s a very heated partisan state. But the fact is, the Ethics Committee again decided to set that aside because there are people under indictments. There are still indictments coming down. So there has been no current decision on that. And the fact is…
STEPHEN MOORE: Well, the people should know because they probably don’t know the context of this. One of the things that Texas Democrats are so angry about Tom Delay is that we had a redistricting plan for the first time in ten years that actually gave Republicans representation in Texas and they picked up five seats.
And that also has infuriated the Democrats. And I think that’s the point I’m trying to make here is that Tom Delay is being attacked, and the smear campaign is mostly the result of the fact that he is so effective and he is so conservative.
GWEN IFILL: If you were able…
STEPHEN MOORE: Just one other quick thing. You mentioned Jim Wright and people like Dan Rostenkowski. The things that they were, the allegations against them, and the things that in some cases they were convicted of were things that they financially gained from. There is no allegation in any of these ethics violations against Tom Delay that he personally, you know, financially gained from any of these acts.
GWEN IFILL: Since he is still the leader of his party and the House and his party controls the House, couldn’t he unstick this Ethics Committee process to the degree they could get to the bottom of some of these questions if he indeed he didn’t financially profit, or if indeed he didn’t know who was paying for some of these trips? Couldn’t he clear that up?
STEPHEN MOORE: I don’t know if Tom can do that himself, but I do agree that Republicans should put teeth back into the – you know, this is one thing that we agree on. The Republicans should put teeth back into the Ethics Committee. And I think they acted wrongly.
CHELLIE PINGREE: That would draw the clearest line as to your question if this is just innuendo. I mean, again, this was a bipartisan Ethics Committee that already said we are going beyond innuendo here, there were real violations that went on of our ethics standard.
And you had a person in the position of very high power who said, you know, in some ways, in the leadership of the Republican Party, "let’s now dismantle the process." I mean, from anybody standing on the outside, this can’t be seen as just a partisan attack on one side or the other. This is, you know, the most important decision-making body in our country deciding not to police itself. And that is very serious.
STEPHEN MOORE: All the allegations against Tom Delay have come from Democrats and from liberal institutions. The Washington Post, the New York Times, Common Cause, all of these groups, in my opinion, have a left-wing tinge.
And I do think it is a partisan and an ideological battle against Tom Delay Who is going to want to be in a leadership going forward when you see you get to the top and people just attack you and smear you to the point where you can’t govern any longer.
CHELLIE PINGREE: But then you have to say that Congressman Hefley who is clearly a Republican was somehow –
STEPHEN MOORE: The only one.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s explain what we are talking about, this is a Republican congressman who was the chairman of the Ethics Committee and tried to put some of these stricter rules in place and he was — his job was taken away from him. That’s the thanks he got, right?
CHELLIE PINGREE: Right. And he also was the chair of the committee when they admonished the majority leader. So he also was in a position to be someone who decided whether there was an ethical issue or not. And by proceeding with that, it appeared from the outside like he was removed from his position.
GWEN IFILL: You both are pretty well plugged into this. You know what often happens when these dominos fall is that members of the person who is accused, that person’s own party begin to break ranks. Do you see that happening with the Republicans?
STEPHEN MOORE: Not yet and I don’t think it will because, you know, Tom Delay is really beloved by conservatives especially conservative movement conservatives like myself but also he is by loved by conservatives in the Congress.
I don’t think based on the evidence that has been shown so far that Tom Delay is in any trouble. In fact, I think he is going to be speaker of the House someday and I can’t wait for that day because I think he is one of the great American leaders.
GWEN IFILL: You agree with that?
CHELLIE PINGREE: I don’t. I actually think that increasingly you are starting to feel that this is getting closer to the tipping point, that the Republicans are starting to feel the heat, that this is making their party look bad and not having a strong ethics process, making it even worse.
STEPHEN MOORE: But nobody’s come forward; that’s — you know, if you look at the Washington Post story, it’s always some unnamed Republican. There’s no one who’s been named –
CHELLIE PINGREE: It is very hard to speak out against a membership of the leadership.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll be watching. Chellie Pingree and Stephen Moore, thank you both very much.