Immediately upon returning to Washington, the victorious majority in the House of Representatives again displayed the mentality that inspired Mark Twain’s immortal observation about their kind. “It could probably be shown by facts and figures,” said the sage on various occasions, “that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
That Twain quip dates from the Gilded Age, of course, during the latter years of the 19th century. Back then, corporate barons bought or rented politicians to enact self-serving, regressive policies that they often camouflaged with citations from Scripture. Under the Capitol dome, ethics were mocked, corruption was institutionalized, and power was worshipped above all. The main difference between then and now is that everyone can watch their elected representatives do these things on television.
Not every outrage is enacted on C-SPAN, however, because the Republican overseers have enough sense to do their most humiliating business behind closed doors, without recording votes. For instance, no cameras or reporters were present last week when Republicans voted to repeal their own rule requiring any member of their party indicted for a criminal offense to relinquish his or her leadership post.
The only likely victim of the discarded rule is Tom DeLay, the House Majority Leader, who may be the next target of a grand jury sitting in Austin, Tex., which has already indicted three of Mr. DeLay’s closest political associates for campaign-finance offenses. Like so many aspects of life in the Lone Star State, the story behind those indictments also gives off a whiff of the Gilded Age. The DeLay flunkies are in trouble for allegedly laundering millions in corporate cash through political-action committees that supported Republican candidates for the Texas legislature. The grand jury has also issued indicments against several out-of-state corporations that contributed to the DeLay war chest, with the obvious intent to trade money for favors from him. This scheme’s ultimate goal was a belated and blatant gerrymander of the state’s Congressional districts, ensuring an unassailable majority behind the Republican leadership no matter what might happen in other states.
The Republicans had posted the indictment rule in 1993 to prove that after decades of Democratic domination-and amid increasing ethical disorder-only they could restore integrity to Congress. Having established control in five successive elections, they no longer find such stringency convenient. It was the kind of rule that sounds good in theory (and propaganda), but must be dropped as soon as there is any chance that it would have to be enforced. They dispensed of the problem with a voice vote (and some of the people’s representatives have since refused to disclose how they voted on this bit of business).
In a way, this candid demonstration of fealty to money and boss rather than ethics and law was refreshing. But that momentary candor was spoiled when several House members tried to justify their action as a matter of principle. “I’m strongly against any presumption of guilt,” intoned Representative Peter King of Long Island, warning against “runaway prosecutors” who recklessly ruin the innocent. Others were more specific, smearing Ronnie Earle, the Austin prosecutor probing Mr. DeLay’s activities, as a “partisan crackpot district attorney.”
A few credulous figures in the media eagerly repeated the unflattering descriptions of Mr. Earle. On Fox News, for instance, commentator Michael Barone called him a “partisan Democrat” and a “rotten prosecutor.” But having served for almost three decades as Travis County D.A., Mr. Earle has compiled a long record that is open to examination. He happens to be a Democrat-but is he a partisan prosecutor?
The statistics from Mr. Earle’s office provide a stunning refutation of the House Republicans and their Fox flacks. Of more than a dozen political figures prosecuted by the Austin district attorney over the past quarter-century, nine were Democrats and three were Republicans. The Democratic scalps adorning his wall include those of a former state treasurer and a former speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Last March, the Houston Chronicle-a newspaper that often endorses Republican candidates- dismissed the partisan complaints against Mr. Earle as hogwash. “During his long tenure, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has prosecuted many more Democratic officials than Republicans,” wrote the paper’s editors. “The record does not support allegations that Earle is prone to partisan witch hunts.”
Or as Mr. Earle put it, “This is not about Democrats and Republicans. It is about cops and robbers. This is an investigation of a crime.”
So much for the vaunted Republican respect for law and order, and so much for the Republican “revolution” that began 10 years ago. Under Mr. DeLay’s leadership, the new majority party now personifies the bloated arrogance that once shamed Democrats when they gazed upon their own party’s Congressional leadership. The question that now confronts the Democratic leaders is whether they possess the zeal and the integrity to fight for reform-as their adversaries once did.