Sunday, November 21, 2004

Revolution In Reverse: In solidifying its power, the GOP is loosening its ethics

Revolution In Reverse
In solidifying its power, the GOP is loosening its ethics.

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

"And I want to say to you bluntly: You live today with the most corrupt congressional leadership we have seen in the United States in the 20th century. You have to go back to the Gilded Age of the 1870s and 1880s to have anything comparable that we've lived through."

Gosh, those Democrats must be really bitter about this year's elections to say stuff like that. Isn't it time to put aside partisan invective?

But however appropriate that ringing indictment may seem to the moment, it did not issue from any Democrat this week. The words were spoken in February 1992 by a House Republican named Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was then building the momentum that led to the historic Republican takeover of Congress two years later. The GOP modestly called what it was up to a "revolution."

As the old rock song taught us: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

What's surprising is how shameless House Republicans were on Wednesday in casting aside their 11-year-old rule requiring a member of their leadership to step aside temporarily if he or she comes under indictment.

The repeal might be called the Tom DeLay Protection Act of 2004. DeLay, the House majority leader, is under investigation by Ronnie Earle, the district attorney in Texas's Travis County. Earle, who is a Democrat, is investigating charges that corporate money was used illegally to help Republicans win Texas legislative races in 2002. Republican victories that year paved the way for changes in the state's congressional district lines that helped Republicans win additional U.S. House seats in Texas this year, solidifying their hold on power.

Earle has already obtained indictments against three of DeLay's political associates. The Hammer, as DeLay is known, must be worried.

Recall how Republicans dismissed any and all who charged that the investigations of President Bill Clinton by special prosecutor Ken Starr were politically motivated. Ah, but those were investigations of a shady Democrat by a distinguished Republican. When a Democrat is investigating a Republican, it can only be about politics. Is that clear?

Rep. Henry Bonilla, the Texas Republican who sponsored the resolution to protect DeLay, said it was designed to protect against "crackpot" prosecutors whose indictments might get in the way of the ability of House Republicans to choose their own leaders. Can't let a little thing like an indictment get in the way of the sovereignty of House Republicans, can we?

"Attorneys tell me you can be indicted for just about anything in this country," said Bonilla. Remember the old days during the Clinton impeachment when Republicans went on and on about the importance of "the rule of law"? Oh well.

DeLay's response to the whole thing came, almost word for word, from Clinton's old talking points. "We must stop the politics of personal destruction," Clinton said in December 1998 after the House impeachment vote that DeLay had rammed through. On Wednesday, DeLay said that Democrats "announced years ago that they were going to engage in the politics of personal destruction, and had me as a target." Maybe it's time for Bill and Tom to sit down at that big new library in Little Rock for a friendly drink.

About the only defense Republicans can make for repealing their rule on indicted leaders is that the original motivation for passing it in 1993 was blatantly political. Republicans were trying to make hay over an investigation of Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat who was then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rostenkowski was later convicted of mail fraud. If politics was behind the rule in the first place, why not be political now that the rule is inconvenient? Isn't this a case of admirable consistency?

Some Republicans, at least, remember what they stood for 10 years ago. "We took a strong stand in 1994 to make clear the Republican conference would live by a higher standard than our Democratic colleagues," Rep. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said in a statement. Shays also told reporters: "We won election in '94 because we were going to be different, and what I continue to see is a slow but very consistent erosion in what made us different."

Shays reminds us that when and he and Gingrich were in the opposition, they gave voice to many who worried about the dangers of an entrenched majority that came to assume it had a right to power and could do whatever was necessary to keep it. Gingrich's line about the Gilded Age just may have come 12 years too early. You don't have to be a crackpot to believe that the Gilded Age is now.

Originally published Friday, November 19, 2004; Page A29