As he navigates the snares of a widening ethics controversy, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay can take both heed and comfort from the experiences of colleagues forced out of their leadership posts over the past two decades.
Once a rarity, partisan-fueled probes into everything from money to sex to abuse of power to political correctness have become par for the course since the 1980s.
Post-Watergate ethics reforms, expanding cable news coverage, the rising cost of campaigns, and the Reagan-era rebirth of the Republican Party to eventually take over a long-held Democratic institution, converged to make Congress an increasingly scrutinized and edgy place.
Attack politics have replaced bipartisan coalitions. Since then, more than a half-dozen leaders have been stripped of their posts, forced to resign or lost re-election.
“This has now become a sort of standard aspect of congressional politics, that you attack the opposition party’s leaders on ethics issues,” said Randall W. Strahan, an associate professor of political science at Emory University who specializes in the history of Congress. “There’s kind of a tit-for-tat quality to it.”
The chain began with the 1989 resignations of House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California.
Coelho, a high-flying party fund-raiser whose aggressive tactics and ties to big business earned him enemies in his own party as well as across the aisle, resigned from office amid scandal over an unreported loan he used to buy junk bonds. He was investigated but not criminally charged.
Wright was accused of improperly using his power to help friends and business associates, including those involved with troubled savings and loans, and of selling mass quantities of his book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” to organizations to which he gave speeches as a way to skirt limits on honoraria. Facing charges of violating 69 House rules, Wright resigned.
The case against him was led by Republican Newt Gingrich, who had just begun making a name for himself.
Back in Congress, Democrat Tom Foley of Washington replaced Wright as House speaker, but Foley lost re-election in 1994 amid scandals over House bank and post office privileges that the speaker’s office controlled. Also that year, Dan Rostenkowski, a legendary Chicago Democrat who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, was indicted on corruption charges, accused, among various abuses, of pocketing public money. He lost re-election, pleaded guilty two years later to mail fraud and went to prison.
Republicans, led by Gingrich, now controlled the House. But by 1997, Gingrich was being brought down, for allowing charitable contributions to be used for political purposes and providing false information in his subsequent ethics investigation. He was fined $300,000, and this, coupled with disappointing results in House GOP races in 1998, forced his resignation from office.
Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican among those calling loudest for President Clinton to resign for his affair with Monica Lewinsky and the related cover-up, was to step in to fill Gingrich’s shoes as speaker. Instead, Livingston resigned from office, publicly admitting adulterous “indiscretions” of his own.
Since then, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, has avoided financial or moral scandal.
But in 2002, Democrats seized on comments made by incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, at the 100th birthday party for the retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, to force Lott to relinquish his leadership post. Lott had said of the one-time champion of racial segregation from South Carolina who ran for president in 1948 that if the country had elected Thurmond “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
Lott apologized publicly, saying he hadn’t intended to endorse segregation in any way but only to honor Thurmond in a broader sense. Still, with party members concerned his comments would poison their reputation on minority issues, Lott yielded his leadership post.
Overwhelmingly, though, these men bounced back after their falls from grace.
Wright went on to write a memoir, consult for an insurance company and lecture. Foley served as Clinton’s ambassador to Japan and has a public policy institute in his name at Washington State University. Rostenkowski was pardoned by Clinton. Coelho made money in investment banking, chaired Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and is active with the Epilepsy Foundation and causes for the disabled.
Gingrich has become a one-man industry _ a communications consultant, author, paid speaker, think tank fellow and charitable fund-raiser floating speculation about a presidential run in 2008. He started the Center for Health Transformation and has served on advisory commissions involving national security and the United Nations.
Livingston went on to establish a powerful Washington lobbying firm and serve on the board of directors of various companies and non-profit groups. Lott remained in the Senate, laying plans for a memoir. He is chairman of the Rules Committee and still wields influence publicly and behind the scenes.