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DeLay: Tammany on the Potomac

Last May a few dozen members of the Texas House of Representatives fled the state to stymie a Republican redistricting plan, halting the process. Remember that? If so, you probably also know that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, and his allies enlisted the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and even the new Department of Homeland Security to help hunt them down. But did you know that 11 Democrats in the Texas Senate just hightailed it to New Mexico in a replay of last May’s antics? Or that Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, another Republican, made plans to hire bounty hunters to bring them back to Austin? Or that the rump state Senate is now debating whether to strip the runaway legislators of their right to vote in the upper chamber — thus disenfranchising some 700,000 Texans per senator — until they pay tens of thousands of dollars in personal fines for leaving the state?

If any of this comes as a surprise, you’re not alone. The ongoing redistricting fight in Texas has galloped on from farce to outrage to parody and back again several times since the story slipped out of the national media headlines in June. Throughout the summer Republican lawmakers acting at DeLay’s behest have conducted a political, scorched-earth campaign to help him pad his majority in the House of Representatives. But the endless fireworks are actually part of a larger, more ominous story: the rise of Tom DeLay.

DeLay, who represents a district in suburban Houston, is unquestionably the most powerful House majority leader in modern political history. Arguably, he is more powerful than any speaker of the House in modern times as well. On first glance, what stands out to many is his unvarnished conservatism. But the key to his power in the Beltway Republican Party has actually been his ability to create a seamless web of special-interest legislation and political money. The hallmark of his ascendancy has been the willingness to push every fight well past the bounds of propriety and ethics. (Trying to get government counter-terrorism agencies involved in hunting down his political opponents is only the latest example.) The result has been a 21st-century version of Tammany Hall on the Potomac. The Texas redistricting fracas is the first step in an effort to bring his brand of take-no-prisoners D.C. politics to his home state and, later, to state capitals around the country.

From a distance, the Texas redistricting battle looks like garden-variety political hardball. After all, gerrymandering — the practice of redrawing electoral districts to advantage your own political party — may be inherently unfair. But it’s also as American as apple pie. Every 10 years, Congress reapportions the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, and each state takes the opportunity to redraw the boundaries of its congressional districts. That makes controlling the state government just after the decadal year (1990, 2000, 2010, etc.) extremely important since whichever party is in the saddle can then stack the deck in its own favor for the next 10 years.

The key, though, is that it happens only once every 10 years. Or at least that’s how it worked until this year in Texas. There’s no law preventing states from redrawing their district lines before every new election. But the 10-year rule has been established practice since the late 19th century. And, with the exception of maps thrown out because of federal voting rights violations, that precedent hasn’t been violated in any of the 50 states for the past 50 years.

The practical reason for keeping to this rule is obvious: Redistricting is an inherently political and highly disruptive process that pulls the political craziness of Washington down into each state. Sticking to the once-a-decade ritual provides some measure of fairness and regularity to the process.

In 2001, Texas had divided government. And after the House and Senate failed to agree on a map, a panel of federal judges (two Republicans and one Democrat) stepped in to decide on a map. DeLay and his allies have argued that the Legislature, and not unelected judges, should choose a map. But courts always step in when state governments reach an impasse, and those maps are never revisited before the decade is out. At least not until now.

Alternatively and more candidly, DeLay and Co. have argued that since Texas is now a Republican state, any legislative map that doesn’t yield a majority of Republican congressmen is intrinsically unfair to the GOP. But even on its own terms, that argument doesn’t add up either. As Democrats repeatedly point out, there are more than enough Republican majority districts to allow the GOP to dominate the state’s congressional delegation as thoroughly as it does the rest of the state’s politics. What stands in the way isn’t gerrymandering, so much as incumbency. A handful of long-serving conservative Democrats like Charlie Stenholm continue to be re-elected by Republican-dominated districts.

No matter how you slice it, DeLay and his allies have, as clearly as you ever can in politics, broken the rules. And the rationale is one Washington has become familiar with from DeLay: The political gains are great and DeLay has the power to do it. The effects on the political system in Texas have been rapid, unmistakable and more than likely irrevocable.

In recent decades, Texas had a remarkably consensus-based politics, even to a degree that would seem nonsensical in most states. Senate rules dictated that a bill couldn’t even get debated without first clearing a two-thirds vote. That tradition began to fray as the parties crept toward parity in recent years. But it only really came apart when DeLay began an all-out effort to send his brand of D.C. politics back home.

DeLay’s D.C. money machine has been growing and tightening its hold in Washington ever since he become majority whip in 1995. (One of his more controversial tactics has been threatening D.C. trade organizations that their access to key legislators will be cut off if they hired Democratic, as opposed to Republican, lobbyists.) And starting in 2001, DeLay started channeling gushers of money back into Texas legislative races with a host of PACs and committees with names like ARMPAC (Americans for a Republican Majority PAC) and TRMPAC (Texans for a Republican Majority PAC) all in the hopes that a more Republican Legislature elected in 2002 could revisit the redistricting question in a more powerful position. After Republicans were victorious, the pull of DeLay’s money showed clearly in the near-fanatical zeal with which state Republicans turned to trying to implement the map DeLay’s top aide, Jim Ellis, brought to Austin in May.

The first attempt to push through the map was scuttled by the House Democrats’ successful escape to Oklahoma. But DeLay seldom gives up that easily. At DeLay’s urging, Governor Rick Perry called a special session of the state Legislature to revisit redistricting. The legislative dynamics of a special session dictated that the showdown would come not in the state House but in the Senate. And in their now-diminished numbers, Democrats barely hold more than enough seats to block a two-thirds vote to bring the redistricting bill up for debate. In a state where party loyalty has often been feeble and with a few legislators already signaling they might be swayed by political largesse for their constituents, the Democrats had to struggle to remain united. But remain united they did and, surprisingly, even managed to bring across one Republican who thought the redistricting map hurt rural voters in addition to Democrats.

Before the special session, Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, promised to abide by the Senate’s special two-thirds rule. But after the Democrats held firm, he revised his pledge: The promise, he now said, applied to that special session, but all bets were off if the governor called another special session — which of course he duly did. That decision (and a plan to lock the senators in Senate chamber) led to the current stand-off and a recent announcement from Perry that he’ll keep calling special sessions until he gets his way. When asked if that meant permanent, continuous special sessions, the governor told reporters, “You can surmise that.”

How this will turn out is far from clear. Both sides seem adamant in their positions, and each seems capable of holding it at a standoff indefinitely. But the slide to all-out political war illustrates a deeper point. Constitutions and laws dictate the basic structure of government: stuff that must always happen and things that can’t ever be tolerated. But if that was all there was to the machinery of the state, it would constantly break down into confrontation or paralysis, as it is now in Texas. To compensate, the body politic, like a human body, is also made up of all manner of ligaments, cushioning cartilage and connective tissue that allow the system to function smoothly and last for years. Government screeches into crisis after crisis without some respect for precedent, established usage or just some sense of limits. Cut those away or grind them down, as DeLay is doing in Washington and now in Texas, and you’re left with nothing more than muscle and bone, with all the predictable consequences.

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