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Game of DeLay

State Republicans betray principles

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These days especially, Republicans boast of being the party of family values. But judging by Congressional representatives from Pennsylvania and elsewhere, one of those values is that, when scandal breaks, you keep it all in the family.

In mid-November, Republicans in the House scrapped a cherished ethical principle: a rule that, since 1993, required a party leader to step down if indicted for a crime. The rule was part of an effort to appear more principled than Democrats, and Republicans seemed fond of it -- right up until the point where it might actually apply.

Now, however, three aides to the House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay of Texas, have been indicted in a campaign fund-raising scandal. DeLay himself might be next. So in mid-November, principled Republicans, including those from Pennsylvania, voted to scrap the old rule. DeLay can now serve as majority leader right up until he's sent to prison.

Nicknamed "the Hammer," DeLay is known for punishing enemies and rewarding his friends. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, DeLay has contributed nearly $2.2 million to his fellow House Republicans over the years. Since 2001, he has given more than $100,000 to Pennsylvania Republicans.

Did that money buy the rules change? It seems to have bought silence, at least: As is typical for party caucus decisions, the Republicans took a voice vote behind closed doors. That makes it hard to know how a local Republican like Melissa Hart (Bradford Woods) or Phil English, of Erie, voted, and few are willing to say for the record.

After calling each of the 12 Pennsylvania Republicans in the House to ask how they voted, I got exactly one straight, on-the-record response: Rep. Todd Platts of York, whose staff said he voted against the change. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Platts has never taken a dime from DeLay.)

Some representatives didn't return calls; others claimed not to have been present when the vote was taken. Most others wouldn't give a definitive answer -- at least, not for the record. Political insiders say Hart voted for the rule change, for example, but her staff refused to confirm that.

Typical was my exchange with Tory Mazzola, spokesperson for Bill Shuster of Everett, who's taken $15,000 from DeLay since 2001.

"The Republicans met for an extended period of time and covered a variety of details," Mazzola said when asked how Shuster voted. "The rules change is what they came to. It's a voice vote, so that's the procedure they use."

"So you're not going to tell me how Rep. Shuster voted, then?"

"No."

The new measure, Mazzola said, reflects the principle of "innocent until proven guilty. It's stopping indictments based on politics." Mazzola maintained the party is now stricter than before, because now party leaders convicted of a crime will have to step down. Talk about zero tolerance.

Still, if "innocent until proven guilty" is so important, how come Republicans ignored it for a decade? And if the new rule was stricter, why would House members be hiding their vote? Why wouldn't they boast about it -- like they boasted about the original 1990s rule? Mazzola's answer: "It's a voice vote, and that's the way they work."

I gave up. "Out of curiosity, do you know how Shuster voted?" I asked.

"No."

"Are you curious?"

"Nope."

For a spokesperson, a lack of curiosity can be useful. But the press seems equally complacent. Neither of Pittsburgh's dailies, or any state newspaper I've seen, has run stories documenting how local representatives voted. Even spokespeople seemed surprised by the lack of interest. "Amazingly it hasn't gotten much play," a spokesperson from the western part of the state told me. "If I were a journalist, I'd be interested."

Reporters who did ask would likely hit the same brick wall I did. Hart and other pols say they'll tell constituents who ask, but not reporters. Naturally, though, few constituents will know to ask the question unless it's raised on the local news. As one Philadelphia-area legislative spokesperson put it, the vote is "not even an issue for us. Unless we're quoted on it."

So welcome to the new Republican majority. Democrats are all but powerless, Republicans lack the courage to call their leaders to account -- and the press lacks the will to call them on the carpet.

It could be a long four years.

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