The Culture of Corruption Will Outlast Tom DeLay

Tom DeLay resigned his Congressional seat with all the dignity, discretion and probity that have marked his decades in politics. Leaving office just steps ahead of the law, with prosecutors from the Justice Department’s public-integrity section in hot pursuit, he delivered a farewell speech blaming others for his problems and blithering on at length about “morality.”

He talked about “the enduring strength of our principles and our ideas,” which had built a “shining city on a hill,” and confided that he’d decided to quit only after constant prayer. His decision reflected his determination to prevent “liberal Democrats” from “stealing” his suburban Houston district.

The fact that his former chief of staff, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges on April 1 was merely a coincidence—as was the fact that his close friend, political ally and financial benefactor, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, had pleaded guilty three months ago, along with his former press secretary Michael Scanlon. His former deputy of chief staff, Edwin Buckham, an ordained minister and lobbyist who had also served as Mr. DeLay’s spiritual advisor, appears to be next in the line of legal jeopardy—but that, too, is only a coincidence.

Or as Mr. DeLay later told reporters: “The Abramoff stuff has nothing to do with me.”

His explanation is that the superlobbyist and all those former staffers who used his authority to line their own pockets betrayed his trust without his knowledge. He had no idea that his expenses on all those lavish junkets to Scotland, Russia and the Marianas islands had been paid in exchange for legislative favors. He had no idea that his wife Christine—like Mr. Rudy’s wife Lisa, who is now a cooperating witness—had been placed on the Buckham firm’s lobbying payroll to win such favors. He had no idea that his indicted cronies were operating a criminal conspiracy from the House Majority Leader’s suite in the Capitol.

He insists that he was perfectly innocent as these boastful felons swarmed around him and misused his good name.

If Mr. DeLay actually believed all of his own moralistic speechifying, he might have to ponder the responsibility he bears for the conduct of employees and associates who traded on his power. But in his resignation speech, he declared that he has “no regrets” and “no doubts.”

Instead, he complained about the “liberal Democrats” and “liberal media” who supposedly ruined him. It is true that both advocates and journalists have inspected his record. But to anyone who has observed these events unfold, his whining sounds utterly ridiculous.

The two individuals most responsible for the end of his political career are Senator John McCain, whose committee hearings on Indian gaming drew attention to the Abramoff scandal; and Emily Miller, the press flack who squealed on Mr. Scanlon to the Justice Department after he jilted her for a younger woman. Both happen to be conservative Republicans.

In an interview with Time magazine on the eve of his resignation, Mr. DeLay boasts about the virtual monopoly of jobs and contributions that his party enjoys on K Street, where lobbyists routinely purchased “access” to the Capitol by following his dictates. “Nothing illegal about that at all,” he says, claiming to have achieved “total domination” of the lobbying industry “legally and ethically.” He has forgotten that the House Ethics Committee, a toothless operation run by his fellow Republicans, admonished him on three separate occasions for the smelly appearance of his dealings with lobbyists.

With his associates singing, we may soon learn much more. The confession filed by Mr. Rudy in conjunction with his guilty plea includes mention of a certain “Representative #2” who was involved in his misdeeds and is known to be Mr. DeLay. (“Representative #1” is Robert Ney of Ohio, another probable target of the corruption probe.) The Rudy confession ominously notes that its narrative “does not include all of the facts known to me concerning criminal activity in which I or others engaged.”

Mr. DeLay is not alone in his responsibility for the Congressional culture of criminality that has flourished for the past decade. He has had many enablers, from the Heritage Foundation to the Family Research Council. Last year, long after the character of his leadership became clear, Washington’s conservative leadership paid tribute to him and pledged their unconditional support. Unanimously, they pretended to be blind to the spreading stain of corruption because he promoted their legislation.

And then there are his House Republican colleagues, who seem to think his resignation magically cleanses them of years of complicity. Bidding a fond farewell to Mr. DeLay, the new House Majority Leader revealed the prevailing attitude toward ethics and standards in his caucus. “He has served our nation with integrity and honor,” said John Boehner, “and I’m honored to call him my colleague and friend.”

Obviously, we should only expect more of the same.