Tom DeLay was at the apex of Congressional power. As House majority leader, the Texas Republican was one of the most influential conservatives in the United States, when the unthinkable happened.
On October 19th, 2005, a warrant was issued for his arrest for money laundering. He turned himself in to the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, resigned from his position as House majority leader, and eventually (under pressure from Republicans) resigned from Congress altogether.
Maintaining his innocence all along, he poked fun at the accusations during his brief turn on Dancing with the Stars. In one memorable dance, he wore a red, white, and blue leisure suit with a GOP elephant on the back, pulled money out of his pockets, and threw dollars into the air as he danced.
But five years after the warrant was issued, DeLay was convicted on money-laundering charges and received a three-year prison sentence.
Though he put on a good face, his life and career were seriously impacted. Some would say ruined. Like many disgraced politicians, he became a laughingstock, an asterisk, a person no one wanted at the Beltway parties. This formerly upright man now represented the worst about politicians. “Scandalous” and “corrupt” were the new adjectives used to describe the former Congressman. Everyone – including Republicans – wanted him gone from the public stage.
There was only one problem with this narrative. In September 2013, the Texas appeals court threw out his conviction, saying he didn’t actually violate any state laws.
“The fundamental problem with the state’s case was its failure to prove proceeds of criminal activity,” Justice Melissa Goodwin wrote.
By the time he was exonerated, the damage was long done. In this case, his political opponents were victorious, and their wrongdoing cost them nothing. DeLay was prosecuted by his political enemies for activities that were not criminal.
Delay, sadly, is not alone. Again and again the apparatus of the state and its police power destroy their perceived political enemies. The examples are sadly too numerous to document, but here are just a few.
In Texas, the Texas state house committee is investigating Wallace Hall of the University of Texas Regents for speaking out against corruption in the university’s forgivable-loans program and admissions policies. He discovered politically-connected individuals receive better treatment at the liberal-leaning university. Instead of correcting the injustice, however, Texas house committee wants to impeach him, and the regents chair wants him to resign. Rick Perry has correctly described this investigation as “criminalizing policy differences.”
In Wisconsin, it’s even worse. Armed officers showed up at people’s homes before dawn, refusing to let them contact their attorneys, restrained them under police supervision, and seized their business papers, computer equipment, phones, and other devices. What nefarious activities were they involved in? They created the Wisconsin Club for Growth and supported Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
In the state of Wisconsin, the powerful elite weren’t content to abide by election results or by judicial decisions. Instead, a partisan prosecutor launched “secret John Doe” investigations to terrify the entire conservative community and to remove them from the political conversation. Even though these Wisconsinites have been charged with nothing, they’ve been subjected to pre-dawn raids, warrants, subpoenas, and other harassment. (Read Eric O’Keefe’s description of his harrowing treatment in the Wall Street Journal.)
Of course, the federal government can’t be outdone. The IRS hated the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (which held corporate political speech to be constitutionally protected) so much that it abused its own power to limit its effects. Suddenly, the United States government was harassing citizens who expressed tea party beliefs, who supported Israel, who belonged to patriotic organizations … even people who adopted children.
Here’s my suggestion, as we begin to travel down this Orwellian path: defy those who try to limit your constitutional liberties.
The powerful “elite” successfully ruined Tom Delay’s career in part because conservatives ran for cover. They failed to unite against a grotesque abuse of power.
In Wisconsin, thankfully, conservatives stayed united and have been vindicated in federal court.
In confronting the IRS, unity and resolve are even more critical. The Obama administration’s IRS has enlisted the Department of Justice, congressional Democrats, and even some of Washington’s highest-priced law firms to justify and empower its unlawful conduct. It’s not too much to say that victory for the IRS will represent a grievous blow to our republic.
In the United States the price of dissent isn’t prison, nor is it censorship. That’s the way America used to work, anyway. Does it still?
If you ask the people and then the political elite, you might get two very different answers.
Mark Meckler is the Founder and President of Citizens for Self-Governance.