The Hammer Strikes

Tom DeLay’s Republican Congress Prepares to Smash the State

DeLay, like Gingrich and the other backbenchers, wants to dismantle the federal government. For starters, he would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, which he calls "the gestapo of government." His step-by-step plan for doing this begins with repealing the Clean Air Act and cutting the agency's budget by one third.

The Hammer has little patience for parliamentary niceties. He labels the Nobel Prize committee as "Swedish environmental extremists." And never think DeLay will soften his views to be friendly with the other side. This is the guy who once called moderate Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin "a gutless chickenshit."

Moderation is just not part of DeLay's modus operandi. He has backed the teaching of creationism in public schools, abolishing the constitutional separation of church and state, adopting the Ten Commandments as a national slogan, and outlawing abortion and flag burning. Known for dedication to gutting the federal government, DeLay nonetheless would pump billions of tax dollars into the military for the Star Wars program.

When other members of Congress were trying to find some foothold on John McCain's campaign-finance bandwagon, DeLay was looking for a way to get more campaign cash. The man who claims to have raised $2 million for GOP congressional candidates back in 1994 opposes any reform. "Money is the lifeblood of politics," he says.

Christers love this pol, with his stated affection for the Constitution and the Bible. No wonder the Christian Coalition's executive director compares the ever reliable Hammer to "a Domino's Pizza delivery guy. It's there in 30 minutes, or it's free."

There isn't a social ill DeLay won't lay at the feet of liberalism, which he believes sent women into the workplace and destroyed the nuclear family. The causes of youth violence, he says, have nothing to do with the guns being easily available, but with day care, the teaching of evolution, and "working mothers who take birth-control pills."

Because he's so far out there, DeLay overshadows House Majority Leader Dick Armey, another right-winger from Texas. Less interested in social questions than in fiscal policy, Armey was once a college economics professor, and remains a free-market buff, with a libertarian bent and a hankering for a national flat tax. Though no match for DeLay's firebrand politicking, he can be almost as blunt, once telling the Democrats, "Your president is not that important for us."

The third rising star, recently emerged from a stint in an alcohol rehab center, is Phil Crane, the conservative dreamboat from Illinois. This handsome, silver-tongued orator was the conservative favorite when he ran for president in the Republican primary in 1980. Right-wingers, who didn't know much about Reagan and who worried that George Bush the First was a Commie and maybe even a traitor to boot, threw their votes to Crane.

Now dried out, he's fighting hard to replace Bill Archer as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Before the election, Crane sought to ingratiate himself with his fellow Republicans by dipping into his own war chest to donate $650,000 to the party's House campaign committee. He's also honorary chair of the American Conservative Union, which has given dough to the GOP. Colleagues were plainly worried by Crane's bout with beer, but as Jennifer Dunn, a Republican from Washington, put it delicately, "He's been far more engaged" since switching to soft drinks.

Some liberal optimists look to the evenly split Senate for vestiges of bipartisanship. But that body is dominated by ancients like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, whose press office put out a December 11 bulletin on his health. "Senator Helms is not sick," read the statement, published by The Washington Times. "He is not in the hospital. He is not on life support. He does not have terminal prostate cancer. He does not have pancreatic cancer. He is absolutely fine and will, God willing, be around to torment you for a long time to come."

Stuck with all-but-defenseless leaders on Capitol Hill, the Democrats face the prospect of swiftly becoming irrelevant. Marshaling the Dems in the House is the opaque Dick Gephardt, the original Republicrat, now known mostly for his lack of both wit and eyebrows. The St. Louis pol wanted to be president, and now he's hungry for the speakership in 2002. His whip is David Bonior, who has strong ties to labor and was chief of Congress's anti-free-trade covey. Meek and easily squashed by Gephardt, Bonior is the one progressive figure in the Democratic leadership, which will likely leave him isolated in the Republican-dominated House.

Then comes the uninspiring Democratic front line: New York's wheeling, dealing Charlie Rangel, Wisconsin's David Obey, and California's Henry Waxman.

There is little room for maneuvering here, and bad blood all around. The Republicans run the chamber with an iron hand, gaveling down Democratic opposition, shutting off committee hearings, and ramming one piece of legislation after another onto the floor with virtually no serious debate or consideration. But what has happened is that beneath the iron fist, the system has broken down, with members milling back and forth across the aisle, ignoring party dictates and forming their own ad hoc coalitions, like the one in 1998 between Cleveland's Dennis Kucinich and Georgia conservative Bob Barr to stall the progress of free-trade negotiations, or the one Georgia congressman Charlie Norwood and Michigan Democrat John Dingell forged over a patient's bill of rights.

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