Tom DeLay and the GOP: Milking the system to live high on the hog

Tom DeLay saw a seat in Congress as a way to live large at someone else’s expense. From the time he arrived in Washington after the 1984 elections, DeLay started working the system to line his own pockets.

“I met Delay at the reception for freshmen members of Congress,” recalls retired lobbyist Jackson Russ. “He walked up, looked at my name tag, introduced himself and asked how he could get some honorariums.

In 1984, honorariums were a quick way for members of Congress to line their own pockets. Special interest groups would invite the Congressman to a get together with executives of their company or top members of the organization and then pay that Congressman directly for the appearance.

Congress banned honorariums in 1989 but that gave DeLay five years to become one of the top earner of fees for appearances on the Hill, adding an average of $27,000 a year to his Congressional salary.

“DeLay bugged everyone for honorariums,” says Roy Abrahams, who lobbied Capitol Hill for oil interests from 1975 through 1990. “Others were subtle. He wasn’t.”

When the ban went into effect, DeLay switched his tactics to soliciting free trips from special interests and contributions to any of several political funds he controlled back in Texas where the rules are lax.

“Like most, we maxed out on Tom DeLay each cycle,” remembers Ann Wilson, who lobbied for health care before leaving Washington to get married. “That’s $10,000 for each election cycle — $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election. But we kicked in another $50,000 or so each year to his Texas state PACs. I have no idea where that money went.”

According to Texas election records, the money went mostly to DeLay for certain “in district expenses,” including clothing, entertainment, cars and travel.” In all, DeLay received more than $100,000 a year in checks from the PACs for personal expenses.

At the same time, DeLay, his family and top aides, were jetting around the country on corporate jets and taking expensive vacations to Europe – all paid for by special interest groups.

Some of those vacations were financed by scandal-scarred lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now under investigation for widespread violations of federal election laws, conspiracy and money laundering. The investigation by the Justice Department is also focusing on DeLay and other GOP members of Congress, including Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, Montana Senator Conrad Burns and California Rep. John T. Doolittle.

“The buzzards are circling on the special interest money machines that have funded Republican policies and allowed some in their party to live large,” says former lobbyist Ron Hylton. “I had to walk away from that system because it made me sick.”

Special interest money drives both political parties. Republicans milk business and conservative ideological sources while Democrats tap the tills from unions and liberal advocacy groups.

But Capitol observers say DeLay and other members of the GOP pushed greed and the lust for money and power to new levels, turning the once-subtle game of paying for access and votes into outright blackmail and demands for money and gifts.

“I’d come back from the Hill physically ill,” Hylton says. “Finally, my wife convinced me to get out of the business. We left Washington and have never looked back.”

Those who choose to remain in the business grumble privately about the “entitlement culture” that exists with members of Congress.

Rep. Joel Hefly (R-CO) says he was told when he arrived in Washington he was told that “somebody else pays for everything” and he shouldn’t be expected to pay anything out of his own pocket.

“I’ve seen the best and worst of this institution,” Hefley said in an interview with The Hill newspaper earlier this year. “There’s always been a small percentage that has tried to bleed the system.”

Others, however, see little wrong with the system.

“There’s no shame in hitting up a lobbyist.” Stephen Brown, vice president and general counsel at Dutko Worldwide, told The Hill.  “That’s why God gave you lobbyists — to buy lunch.”