The Hammer Strikes

Tom DeLay’s Republican Congress Prepares to Smash the State

Senator Trent Lott knew. So did Representative Tom DeLay. As the world braced for each twist of a court decision, each swing of the judiciary for Al Gore or George W. Bush, the crouching tiger and the hidden dragon of the United States Congress lay in the tall grass, waiting for the real contest to begin.

The latest round in the battle for control of America—the struggle that will decide not just the country's political priorities, not just who shares in its riches, but what the nation believes itself to be—was determined long before the first Florida ballot could be recounted. Even without a set of Bush boots on the Oval Office desk, conservatives like Lott and DeLay knew they had kept their hold on Capitol Hill. Their margin of victory wasn't great, but they knew what to do with it.

Barely balanced atop a Senate likely to be divided in half, Lott and the other right-wing leaders quickly brushed aside moderates in their own party who wanted to share the smallest dollop of power with the minority Democrats. "Somebody has to be in charge," Senator Lott told reporters this month, expressing a sentiment his GOP colleagues echoed, a few with those exact words, "and we will be very clear about what we will do here."

What they will do is simple, really. The Republican plan, for which Bush is but the latest figurehead, can be understood in two broad strokes: kill off what's left of the New Deal social programs, and speed up the return of power to the states at the expense of the federal government.

The next two years promise to be dangerous for the splintered ranks of liberals, who increment by increment have lost seats both local and federal to the unified right. Ever since Richard Nixon bowed out of the clouded 1960 election, conceding victory to John Kennedy, Republicans have felt they were owed. Nixon's concession denied them the presidency, and it opened the door to what Republicans consider a disaster so great that 40 years later, they're just beginning to remedy it. Kennedy brought with him a renewed vision of an activist government, triggering four decades of right-wing resentment, as conservatives stood witness to the expansion of the Great Society. When Nixon surrendered, Republicans believed, he struck a silent and costly deal, and it was time for Gore to pay up.

Headstrong in his own belief that he won, Gore would not go along. Any hope of a Congress whose leadership was willing to reach across party lines died along with the hope of a quick concession from Gore. Republicans closed ranks, crying with one voice that the election was being stolen. Now, having somehow convinced Americans that Gore should give up and that Bush—who lost the popular election by well over 300,000 votes—is their candidate of choice, Republicans have no need to hedge their agenda.

Fortuitously, the planets have aligned to make things easy for them. High oil prices and the looming recession may combine to offer a remarkable opportunity for merging foreign and domestic policy in one fell swoop. The search for fossil fuel will force the United States both to strike more deals with foreign powers like the Arab states and former Soviet republics, and to drill for oil in places like the Alaskan wildlife preserve, putting environmental concerns on hold. Expanding oil operations abroad also means expanding the already large military presence in and around the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, back home, skyward prices for oil and gas—which have risen 40 percent since last year—could pitch the economy into a recession. Here, the Republicans are ready to pounce, with their grandiose tax breaks, worth $1.3 trillion, money they'll argue will stimulate another Wall Street boom.

In this new Congress, Big Oil will rule, and Big Money will rule, and if liberals are fool enough to place one of their feel-good initiatives—national health care, anyone?—before the public, it'll be smashed into pieces so tiny the Dems will need three administrations just to gather the scraps again.

Since the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of 1994, upstart right-wing Republicans have ruled the House of Representatives with little input from either their own party bosses or the Democrats. By and large, even nominal GOP leaders like Speaker Dennis Hastert have had little power.

These obstreperous, often obnoxious freshmen came from the backbenches, where they sat and stewed over what they believed was an outsized federal government, nursed by the wishy-washy politics of elder lions like Democrat Tip O'Neill. Far from civics-class congressmen in the making, the young backbenchers saw themselves as revolutionaries, out to smash the state. When they couldn't get to the well of the House to speak, they turned to C-SPAN, where they built a national audience through a series of one-minute talks at the end of each day's session. Out of this crucible came the Contract With America and eight years of liberal rollbacks.

Gingrich is gone, but the baton has been passed to an even more horrific crew, led by Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, and Phil Crane.

Majority whip DeLay is known as the Hammer; he earned the nickname for his ability to raise political funds, but he could just as well have gotten it for his ability to pound Hastert into line. The son of a drilling contractor, DeLay grew up in the oil fields of Venezuela and became a Houston bug exterminator before reaching Congress in 1984. His district is home to some of America's biggest polluters—including Dow and Monsanto—and the local boy has never forgotten their interests.

Next Page »