DeLay Has Big Plans For Second Session

Posted November 12, 2003 at 6:58pm

Well before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act passed, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) started thinking about how he would be able to get money to needy GOP candidates in the post-reform world.

Soon, the first fruits of that long-thought process will be on display, as DeLay is set to launch a new fundraising program — the Leader’s Majority Council — designed to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Republican incumbents and challengers late in the 2004 campaign cycle.

DeLay hopes to raise as much as $2 million through the bundling program, which will pour funds into 10 selected House races at a key moment in next year’s elections.

As the product of an effort to see around the fundraising corner, the LMC is typical of the long-term thinking that has been a hallmark of DeLay’s Congressional career, during which he has repeatedly set ambitious goals and pursued them tenaciously, although some critics charge he has often broken the law in doing so.

“I had to take a look at campaign finance reform and see how we deal with future races under those restrictions and constrictions that were created by the bill,” DeLay said in an interview last week in his Capitol office. “If you’re creative enough you can always find ways to legally raise the money that’s necessary to run these campaigns.”

Of course, it’s that very “creative” nature of DeLay’s fundraising prowess that has led Democrats to raise questions about his tactics. Most media coverage of the lawmaker focuses on his prodigious fundraising and close ties to K Street lobbyists, while Democrats regularly allege that he flouts the law and ethics rules to achieve his ends.

For much of DeLay’s career, however, that reputation has actually been helpful to his ascent. Being seen as an intimidating, doggedly aggressive arm-twister aided in his effectiveness as Majority Whip.

That image also tended to obscure DeLay’s proclivity for pursuing a series of strikingly ambitious political and policy goals over long periods of time. Now that he is Majority Leader, DeLay is in position to exert more influence over the legislative agenda, and as usual, he is thinking big.

“On the domestic front … I want to redesign this government,” DeLay said. “I want to see us radically change the tax code. I want to bring fiscal responsibility to the government and to this Congress. I want to see regulatory reform, tort reform — everything that creates competitiveness and a competitive atmosphere for people to do what they do best.”

When he’s not focused on next week’s floor schedule — “I do most of my thinking on airplanes, because you don’t get to sit down and think around here very much,” he said — DeLay is mulling how to mold those ideas into a workable theme that would both guide next year’s House agenda and propel Republican candidates on the campaign trail.

“One vision on the economic front: I’m thinking, ‘Double the economy in 15 years,’” DeLay said. “That covers a lot of stuff. If you’re going to double the economy in 15 years you’re going to have to do all the stuff I mentioned.

“I think that would be a great theme to talk about. It’s dynamic, it’s forward-looking, it’s energizing, it gives people a goal, it makes people think about what they’re doing. … What is the actual effect of doubling the economy? It’s hard to imagine the quality of life we would have. It’s kind of exciting, and it gets people to understand how it impacts them personally.”

Few politicians regularly speak in such expansive terms, and fewer still actually draw up a legislative or political road map to achieve such goals.

“That’s why I came here,” DeLay said. “I came here with certain goals — major, general goals — of changing this country and changing this government and doing business differently from how I found it being done, especially with the Democrat majority. I have never lost sight of those goals.”

The most recent example of DeLay’s penchant for long-term planning came with Texas’ recent round of redistricting.

The entire saga perfectly encapsulated what Democrats see as DeLay’s willingness to flout rules and ignore precedent while leveraging his political clout to extract huge sums of money from lobbyists and corporations in order to strengthen his own grip on power.

DeLay said he began really strategizing for Texas redistricting “about four or five years ago,” though the original impetus actually came immediately after Democrats completed their map following the 1990 Census.

“I thought at that time, ‘We’re going to prepare for the 2001 redistricting,’ and then started working on it in earnest two election cycles ago,” DeLay recalled.

Over those cycles, DeLay helped prod some reluctant local Republicans into believing that reopening the Congressional map would be a good idea while also steering millions of dollars to state GOP candidates, eventually shifting control of the Texas House.

If the courts don’t intercede, the end result could be a net Republican pickup of three to seven House seats.

In a similar vein, DeLay has long been on the cutting edge of devising innovative campaign efforts designed to protect GOP incumbents and elect new ones. The Leader’s Majority Council is only the latest in a series that has included the Retain Our Majority Program (ROMP) and the Strategic Task Force to Organize and Mobilize People (STOMP).

“Everything has to have an acronym up here,” said DeLay, recalling that he decided that he wanted to name last year’s grassroots program STOMP well before anyone had figured out what it should stand for.

By bundling donations the LMC is designed to funnel hard money late in the cycle to key races in large increments, similar to the way now-banned soft money was used in the past.

DeLay plans to ask Members to nominate high dollar donors in their districts to kick in $10,000 when called upon next summer.

“I have every reason to believe this could be a pretty massive deal,” DeLay said.

In addition to raising money and developing “farm teams” of future GOP candidates, DeLay’s long-term majority-building efforts have also extended to K Street.

Many of DeLay’s closest allies and former aides are now powerful lobbying players, and his much-publicized K Street Project is designed to encourage as many corporations and trade associations as possible to fill their Washington offices with Republicans.

Those efforts have gotten DeLay in trouble before. In 1999 he received a letter of admonishment from the House ethics committee for manipulating the legislative agenda to punish the Electronics Industry Association for hiring a Democrat as its president.

Building alliances on K Street is part of a broader effort by DeLay to foment support for his staunchly conservative — Democrats would say radical — vision for smaller government, fewer regulations and freer labor markets.

To that end, DeLay has pushed a number of legislative initiatives that could weaken the organized labor movement and thus knock a key leg out from under the Democratic Party.

“I don’t think I have to do a whole lot when it comes to unions,” DeLay said. “They’re deteriorating themselves. Their membership has steadily declined and it’s because they don’t live in the real world.”

While DeLay has been instrumental in House Republicans’ efforts to cut taxes — he regularly brags that the chamber has passed tax reductions every year since the GOP took control — he is much more interested in the long-term possibility of overhauling the entire tax code.

“We’ve created an action team of Members to start the debate,” DeLay said of tax reform. “We’re looking at opportunities for legislation. Now that I’m leader I can suggest to the Speaker a certain agenda to move that along. As long as you know it’s a long-term project, these kinds of things take anywhere from five to ten years — in some cases more than that. You create the organization, you lay out the strategy, and have the patience and persistence to make it happen.”

Asked whether he’s ever set an ambitious goal and failed to meet it, DeLay chuckled and said, “The only thing I can think of is, when I first got here I created an organization called People Restoring an Internationally Competitive Economy — PRICE — and I had grand visions of this being quite a political machine nationwide.

“It was based on the trucking industry in Texas that I had taken on. … They had an incredible political machine, and I tried to create that and it didn’t go very far. … I even had brochures fixed up. I just couldn’t get it off the ground.”

DeLay was only a junior Member at the time, but even though PRICE never took off, he already knew what job he wanted and began thinking how he would get there.

“The only thing I really wanted to be when I came here was Whip, and I accomplished that,” he said.

The bigger question, then, is how much DeLay could accomplish if he ascended to the House’s top job. Current Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) rarely speaks of the sort of radical reform — changing the entire government — that DeLay does. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did so regularly, but many critics believed that sort of thinking made him better suited to lead the pre-1994 GOP insurgency than the Speakership.

But despite the fact that DeLay plotted his rise to Whip for nearly a decade, and that he prides himself in planning large-scale ventures years in advance, the 56-year-old lawmaker claims not to be looking ahead to the day when Hastert retires.

“I’ve always been a person that believes you’d better do the best job you can in the job you’re in,” DeLay said, “and then opportunities may open themselves or they may not.”