January 26, 2006
Hammering Away

By George Will

RICHMOND, Texas -- Out here, where the tendrils of Houston's growing exurbs reach for open ground, sits Rio Bend, a cluster of new houses and other facilities for parents having difficult times with troubled foster children -- difficulties like those Tom and Christine DeLay experienced with several teenagers they took into their home. Rio Bend was built by the DeLays, with help from friends, of sorts.

She, an acerbic realist from south Texas, says more houses are planned by their charitable organization, but: ``I hated to lose the leadership position because it helps me to raise money for those kids.'' Note her agreeably guileless acknowledgement that some friends of Rio Bend may not have been seized by simple altruism. She shares here husband's credo -- power is useful and should be used -- and knows the moral ambiguities it can involve.

He strides like a bantam rooster into the living room of one of the Rio Bend bungalows, having just been buoyed by an appreciative luncheon of 400 realtors to whom he read a list of earmarks -- personally directed spending, aka pork -- he has delivered to his district. Most people, battered as he recently has been, would be curled up on the carpet in a fetal position. But DeLay is as direct and uncomplicated as the tool that supplies his nickname -- ``The Hammer'' -- and his faults do not include being a whiner.

Furthermore, he is not about to plea bargain in the court of public opinion. He chafes under prudential reticence: His attorneys tell him not to trumpet the fact that the Justice Department told them he is not a target in the Abramoff investigation. But about other matters, the bantam is belligerent.

Earmarks? Although recently ``they got out of hand,'' they are, he says, necessary and proper because it is best to have spending dictated by a politician who knows his district's needs: ``We are an equal branch of government -- why should we let a bureaucrat decide?'' He says that in a state like Illinois, which is dominated by Democrats ``who play hardball,'' earmarks are the only way even Speaker Dennis Hastert can get highway money spent in his district.

The K Street Project? That is, getting interest groups to hire Republican lobbyists, and to make such hirings fruitful by transactions using, among other things, earmarks? The author of this insists: ``I'm very proud of it.'' In 1994, ``we were coming as a Republican majority into a Democratic culture'' in Washington. For 40 years, he says, the media had hired people congenial to sources who controlled Congress. And K Street -- the lobbyists' habitat -- hired Democrats to ensure access to Democrats. K Street Republicans ``never got to see John Dingell or (Dan) Rostenkowski,'' two Democratic chairmen of crucial committees.

So, DeLay asks: In 1995, what do you think Democratic-dominated K Street was interested in? ``Helping us get our work done? Secure our majority?'' Those are rhetorical questions.

DeLay's Democratic opponent this fall will be Nick Lampson, a former congressman who in 2004 lost his seat in another district, partly because of the redistricting DeLay engineered that resulted in five additional Republican seats. DeLay won in 2004 with only 55 percent, partly because he thought that ``to set an example'' he should consent to making his district more Democratic in order to make others less so.

Referring to his trial on campaign finance charges brought by a notoriously political Democratic prosecutor, DeLay says, with a confidence that might be misplaced but clearly is unfeigned, ``I'll be acquitted by the end of April.'' Then he says he will secure a 12th term, winning ``the most expensive congressional race ever.'' The national Democratic Party and several liberal groups -- already running ads and phone banks -- spend, well, liberally.

Because undecided voters are thin on the ground -- he estimates they are about 13 percent of the district -- this election will be about mobilizing the faithful. So the piling on by his critics -- their wretched excesses in response to what they perceive to be his -- may help him.

Congress under Republican control has increased earmarks 873 percent in a decade and validated the axiom that the more solicitous government becomes, the more servile it seems and the more scorn it receives. Congress has not been so unpopular since 1994, when Democrats lost their 40-year grip on the House. But here on the east bend of the Brazos River, unlike on the Potomac, the fever for reform is not high. To a visiting columnist who waxes censorious about earmarks for highway projects, DeLay responds with a notable lack of repentance: ``You just drove out on one.''

© 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

George Will

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