The Hammer Falls

Tom DeLay’s fellow House Republicans were hardly surprised by the majority leader’s indictment on charges of conspiracy to violate the campaign finance laws back home in Texas.

In fact, they tried to plan for this eventuality early in the year by rescinding a rule that indicted congressional Republicans could retain their leadership positions. The negative reaction from the public and their own rank-and-file forced the party leaders to reinstate that rule, and, accordingly, on Wednesday DeLay stepped aside.

As House GOP whip and later leader, DeLay more than anyone in Washington consolidated the Republican hold on power and advanced the Bush agenda, but there’s a good chance that, fairly or unfairly, he may be out of the leadership for good.

As tough and tenacious as DeLay is, he is certainly not someone to write off. But trials have a way of dragging on, and when that ordeal is over he faces an inquiry by the House ethics committee, which has already admonished him three times for various lapses, over whether he violated House rules by accepting lobbyist-paid travel.

And conservative Republican backbenchers rebelled at a ploy by DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to install a compliant placeholder pending his return. Instead, Republican whip Roy Blunt moved up one step and he may not want to move back. Other ambitious Republicans would also like a crack at a leadership post.

DeLay in essence is charged with laundering $190,000 in corporate campaign contributions through a national Republican political action committee and sending them back to Texas where such corporate contributions are illegal. The indictment does not tip the prosecutor’s hand. It is hard to say whether the alleged offense is a technicality or something more serious.

It was, however, amusing to hear an unabashed partisan zealot _ and proud of it _ like DeLay denounce the Texas prosecutor as “an unabashed partisan zealot.”

Part of the money in question went to fund a redistricting that resulted in five more Republican members of Congress from Texas. It was a signature DeLay move _ brutal and effective.

The DeLay case would do the nation a service if it exposes a true scandal in American politics: Tortured partisan redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts to produce noncompetitive, single-party districts, virtual rubber stamps for incumbents.

DeLay was quick to attack the judicial branch. His threats of reprisals and impeachment against judges with whom he disagreed even drew a veiled rebuke from Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It is a small irony that his fate is now in the hands of that same judiciary he so often abused.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)