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The DeLay Indictment: Rather Than the End, a New Beginning?

Let’s be clear: The indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) did not exactly thrill Republicans in the House.

And no wonder. It is not the kind of news that any party, majority or minority, wants to hear. It brought back memories of the ham-handed attempt at the beginning of the year by the Speaker and his cronies to erase the conference rule requiring a leader to step down if under indictment, and will soon shine a more powerful spotlight back on the ethics committee and its dysfunctionality. (The embarrassment of that spotlight was heightened by the remarkable comments the other day by ethics chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), not only endorsing DeLay’s claim that this is simply a political vendetta but saying that the ethics panel would not be able to do its basic job because it did not have the resources. And whose fault is that?) [IMGCAP(1)]

But that isn’t the only view. Here is another: House Republicans should see this “problem” as an opportunity.

Thanks in major part to DeLay, House Republicans have spent the past five years bending rules, obliterating norms, alienating Democrats and throwing aside the basics of a deliberative process. They have made a mockery of the idea, raised in their triumphant 1994 campaign, that they would set a higher moral standard in the majority; instead, they have recreated the Gilded Age. They have made as their highest goal retaining their majority, not fair, principled governance.

With DeLay’s departure from the leadership, there is a chance to rethink the majority’s current style of governance and implement a major course correction with enough time for voters to see it and evaluate it. There are two key players who can make the difference here: Reps. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and David Dreier (R-Calif.), who will be splitting up DeLay’s old Majority Leader duties with Blunt taking the actual title. Let me start with Blunt.

I am a Blunt fan. I have spent enough time with him, and watching him, to see someone who is qualitatively different than DeLay. True, he is a hardball player — a tough-minded, hard-nosed legislative actor who plays to win. True, he has been an ardent supporter of the K Street Project. True, he showed serious insensitivity when he engineered a legislative action that affected tobacco companies while his son, and the woman he was dating, were representing such companies.

But Blunt also is an institutionalist. He has some real concerns about how Congress functions. He winces at some of the tactics that have unnecessarily alienated Democrats, and he actually cares about process (and, as I have argued in this space before, about maintaining a Congress in the event of a disaster or devastating terrorist attack).

Unlike DeLay, Blunt does not instinctively push up to every ethical line. The tobacco case was an exception, rather than the norm for him. Nor, from what I have seen, has he used ham-handed threats to coerce trade associations, companies or lobbying firms to hire particular Republicans or fire Democrats (although we need to keep a close watch on his aide Sam Geduldig, whose tenure on the Banking Committee was not stellar in this regard). Moreover, Blunt is an internationalist who has made major efforts to educate himself about the world.

Blunt now has an opportunity to lay down a marker — to show everybody that the House, even in its fractured condition, with nerves frayed and partisan tensions high, with its tight margins and ideological divisions, can still have reasonably open debate and find bipartisan ground on some important issues.

He can move the majority from its current mentality, reinforced by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as well as DeLay, to form its majorities on every issue, big and small, from within the Republican Conference and instead move toward a different approach, bringing in Democrats from time to time when bills are being assembled. And he can change the ethical climate of the majority, ratcheting back the excesses of the K Street Project, blocking the embarrassing efforts by Neanderthals to roll back all campaign reform.

He can make sure the ethics committee under Republican aegis actually works and has credibility. He can push committees to do the kind of real oversight that has been largely absent. He might even consider pushing for reform of the presidential campaign funding system, which badly needs to be updated, for the sake of both political parties.

More generally, Blunt should set up a task force with smart and intellectually honest members such as Reps. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.), Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and others to recommend some concrete changes in the way the majority does business.

Now, on to Dreier. I have been at a loss for years as to why Dreier, a longtime champion of the regular order, of rights for the minority party, of Congressional procedures and reform, abandoned all those ideals as Rules Committee chairman.

Dreier has been the biggest champion I have ever seen of restrictive rules and procedural techniques to freeze out legitimate amendments and debate. His fig leaf has been the allowance on most bills of the minority party’s motion to recommit with instructions — but since it has been regularly accompanied by majority pressure to treat the motion as a procedural vote requiring party loyalty, it has been a hollow gesture, designed for PR purposes.

The only rational explanation I could come up with for what Dreier has done was that he thought by being tough, partisan and loyal to a fault to the Speaker, that would give him serious credentials on the right if and when an attractive leadership opening presented itself.

Forget that. His rough and summary rejection by his conservative colleagues when Hastert wanted to pick him as DeLay’s temporary successor clearly shows that approach is, to put it charitably, a nonstarter. So come home, Dreier. Go back to first principles, those you lived by all those years in the minority. Build the institution, don’t use it as your partisan playground. Take the advice of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and open up the rules, even if you lose a few battles on the floor. If the bedrock right gives you the finger because you support stem-cell research and free trade, regain your standing with the larger community of Congress-watchers and Congress-lovers. The House, and in the end, the GOP, will be better for it.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.