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Tom DeLay: Why The Current Scandal Should Not Overshadow His Admirable Record


Tuesday, Apr. 11, 2006

"…stripped of power, [a] watchman on the lonely tower."

-- "Marmion," Sir Walter Scott, 1808

To go from arguably the most powerful position on Capitol Hill, to one of 435 Representatives with a portfolio extending no further than the lines of your congressional district, has to be mighty lonely. One can understand easily why former Majority Leader Tom DeLay decided last week to resign his post in the Congress.

Yet there is much more to Tom DeLay than "power." He practiced the art of his job in Washington with a consistency and openness that few others have matched; and at least to this former Member of Congress, his political passing is not cause for celebration.

Why I Voted for Tom DeLay to Become Majority Whip

The first few times I met Tom DeLay, I was impressed, but not overly so. After all, I was a newly-elected but not-yet-sworn-in Member of Congress -- part of that huge, opinionated, and energetic class elected in 1994. Together, we gave Tom DeLay and his then-minority colleagues the Republican Party's first taste of majority power in 40 years.

I and other Members-elect were in Washington, D.C. in December 1994 for a series of orientation sessions designed to acquaint us with the world of congressional accounts, hiring practices, ethics and committee memberships. While all those subjects were critically important to each of us, as we vied for choice committee assignments and preferred office space, the most interesting facet of our orientation was getting to know the sitting Members of Congress who were jostling for our votes to elect them to positions of power in the upcoming 104th Congress.

The victor for each of the top two positions was a foregone conclusion. No one would have even dreamed of challenging Newt Gingrich when he sought to serve as the GOP candidate for Speaker of the House. He was the 800-pound Moses who had led us from the desert of minority status to the oasis of majority power. The number two post - Majority Leader - was a virtual lock for Dick Armey of Texas, a policy wonk in the Gingrich mold, and someone who everyone knew had worked visibly for many years to hone and advance the conservative agenda.

But beyond that, the field was wide open, including candidates hoping to fill the post of Majority Whip. One of these was Tom DeLay, a feisty Texas Congressman known to die-hard conservatives as one of the few Representatives with the guts to have voted against the Americans with Disabilities Act -- not, of course, because he was averse to helping those with disabilities, but because he did not believe setting up a huge government bureaucracy, heavily reliant for its success on unfunded mandates, was the best way to do so.

It was a heady time for this neophyte congressman-elect from Georgia, being wined and dined by some of the soon-to-be most powerful leaders in Washington. I had several meetings with Tom and the other candidates for the Majority Whip's post - Bob Walker of Pennsylvania and Bill McCollum of Florida (neither of who remains in the House) - and was actually leaning toward one of the other candidates.

But in the end, I voted for Tom DeLay, and to this day, he has never afforded me a reason to have regretted that vote.

DeLay's "Tutorials" - and His Toughness

DeLay did, however, at times require me to justify my congressional votes on certain key issues in order to avoid being on the receiving end of his "tutorial."

For example, when the GOP leadership - read, Newt - decided early in 1996 to cave in to Clinton's intransigence on the so-called "government shutdown" and agree to "plus up" the federal budget we were supposedly trying to pare, I voted "no," against the very clear directive of my party's leadership. That was - I mistakenly presumed - the end of the matter.

Not so. I soon learned the toughness and the clarity of Tom DeLay.

Shortly after my "anti-leadership" vote on the "government-shutdown" matter, my campaign received word that a scheduled fundraising visit to my district by the Majority Whip would not take place. I was dumbfounded. We had planned for months to host Tom DeLay in my suburban Atlanta district, and had already widely publicized the event.

Desperate, I personally called the Majority Whip's office to find out what had transpired to interfere with our major political event. Rep. DeLay took my call, and told me bluntly that my vote against the leadership-backed government-shutdown bill had cost me the visit.

I explained to Tom that both my convictions and the clear wishes of my constituents forbade me from voting to cave in to pressure to spend more money by President Clinton -- a view that had been a core platform of my 1994 campaign. I also explained that I had, in fact, called his office before the vote and alerted his vote counters that I intended to vote "no."

Tom's attitude changed immediately; the trip was back on - one of several he made on my behalf during the eight years I represented the people of the 7th District of Georgia in the House of Representatives.

DeLay's Key Characteristics, Which Defined His Tenure as a Leader

This brief encounter taught me several things about Tom DeLay -- characteristics that remained at the center of his years as both Minority Whip and then Majority Leader after Dick Armey's retirement.

First, Tom is a man of his word; once given, it stays given. Second, he is tough; but he also listens, and if you have a good reason for doing something, he will understand. Third, he recognizes that elected representatives' first allegiances are to their consciences and their constituents; and if a vote for their Party puts the two allegiances in conflict, the former take precedence over the latter.

Fourth, he understands that if a representative's conscience and/or constituents' views make it impossible for him or her to support leadership on a particular vote, and if he or she alerts leadership in advance of that fact, it should not be held against the representative. Conversely, and fifth, if a representative fails to let his or her party leadership know where he or she stands, the representative will be punished and, depending on the importance of the vote, punished severely.

Finally, what my early and continuing relationship with and observations of Tom DeLay taught me, was that this is a man deeply committed to doing his job, whatever it was, well and to the best of his ability, come hell or high water. If his job was to round up votes and to make sure an accurate vote count was made in advance of any and every floor vote - the one unforgivable sin as Whip was to be surprised on a floor vote and lose it - then he would fulfill that job and expect you, as a team member, to do yours.

DeLay never played games and would not tolerate those who played games with him. The process of making public policy in the legislature of the United States - a process which will bear the imprimatur of Tom DeLay of Texas for many years to come - was, to him, far too important an undertaking to leave to the weak-kneed or weak-willed.

DeLay played the process hard - as hard as anyone - but he did so with transparency, conviction and integrity. Whether or not you like his politics or the conservative agenda he advocated, he was a leader who pursued an agenda clearly and consistently, and with conviction and integrity. I, for one, would like to see more folks in Washington in both political parties, do the same.

Bob Barr served in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 1995 to January 2003. He was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. He now practices law, writes extensively, works with the American Conservative Union, and consults on privacy matters with the ACLU.

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