Texas Democratic legislators showed uncommon backbone in mid-May when they skedaddled to Oklahoma rather than submit to a Republican congressional redistricting plan. The "Killer D's" not only stopped an unfair bill, and gained respect for standing up for principles for once; they also exposed how far some GOP officials will go in using government offices and police for their political ends.
It all started because US House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay of Houston wanted to pad the Republican majority in Congress, so he ordered new Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick to ram a custom-drawn redistricting bill through the statehouse to replace the map a federal court ordered two years ago.
DeLay's map was designed to eliminate several Democratic congressmen from a Texas delegation in which the Dems now have a 17-15 majority. The bill was pushed through a state House committee without public hearings outside Austin, and despite complaints that the new districts would divide communities with no other goal than to replace veteran congressional D's with R's. Austin would be split among four congressional districts, none of which could elect an Austinite, much less outspoken liberal Rep. Lloyd Doggett.
Craddick obliged DeLay's wishes and most statehouse observers figured the bill would shoot through the House and the real fight would be in the Senate, where rules and custom require two thirds of senators to bring a bill up for debate.
But the Texas Constitution also requires two-thirds of House members to be present to do business. Texas Democrats are a notoriously fractious bunch, which made it unlikely that they would ever get their act together to decamp en masse to break a quorum. But Craddick and DeLay and their "tommymandered" redistricting bill managed to do what no Democrat could accomplish: unite the House Democrats. So 51 of the 62 Democratic reps were spirited off to Ardmore, just across the Red River from Texas, while at least four others went into hiding on their own. The 150-member House was shut down four days until the redistricting bill died.
Craddick on May 12 signed an order requiring any Texas "peace officer" to arrest the missing members. Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Will Crais set up a command center in the room adjoining Craddick's Capitol office.
DeLay said his office contacted Justice officials May 12 "about the appropriate role of the federal government in finding Texas legislators who have warrants for their arrest and have crossed state lines." (Technically there was no warrant because it was not issued by a court and it was not a criminal matter.)
DeLay also contacted the Federal Aviation Administration in an effort to track an airplane belonging to Democratic Rep. Pete Laney, a former House speaker. Crais apparently called the US Department of Homeland Security's air interdiction service, which normally monitors suspected smugglers, in an attempt to bring them into the manhunt. DeLay later said he played no part in the DPS' decision to contact the air interdiction service.
Craddick's spokesman says Craddick and DeLay spoke May 12 but Craddick "doesn't remember any details at all about that day."
After the Democrats were found in Oklahoma, beyond the reach of Texas lawmen, DeLay told reporters that he supported using FBI agents or US marshals to arrest the runaway Democrats in Oklahoma and drag them back to Austin because redistricting was a federal matter. He said he passed messages from Craddick to the Department of Justice.
Then, on May 14, one day before the Democrats ended their boycott of the Texas House and with Democrats complaining about the Homeland Security involvement in the search for the missing lawmakers, the DPS ordered the destruction of all records relating to the search, in apparent violation of state law.
On May 15, DeLay told reporters the information he got from the FAA about Laney's airplane was available to the general public. The following day he clarified that the FAA flight data was not publicly available, but the public could gain access to the information via commercial websites. However, DeLay apparently used his status as House majority leader to get the information directly from the FAA and turned that information over to Craddick for possible use in apprehending Laney.
Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta reportedly is investigating to see if anything untoward happened when DeLay contacted the FAA. Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge said his agency was investigating "potentially criminal" misuse of the federal air interdiction service by the DPS. Craddick denies knowing anything about how the DPS came to call the agency. "I don't know who contacted who," Craddick told reporters.
The Travis County (Austin) district attorney's office and the state House General Investigating Committee are probing whether the DPS violated state laws in searching for the Democrats and then destroying the records. The head of the DPS law enforcement division testified May 22 before a Travis County grand jury. Then a Capitol surveillance videotape furnished to the House investigators had a mysterious five-hour gap during the time in question. DPS later furnished another tape that is said to be complete, but there is little in the foregoing narrative to inspire confidence in the integrity of state or federal authorities.
That, ultimately, is the point. Civil libertarians warned that the USA PATRIOT Act and the legislation setting up the Homeland Security Department left the nation vulnerable to political misuse of the sweeping authority granted to federal officials. Those fears were grounded in the ambition of people like Tom DeLay and others close to the Oval Office who are not known for their scruples and are not afraid to use their power when it suits them.
University of Texas economist James K. Galbraith, writes in Long Island, N.Y., Newsday that the new Bush budget will give a taste of Texas taxation to the rest of the country. The tax bill throws peanuts at the states, which are forced to raise sales taxes and property taxes to take care of their fiscal crises at the same time funds for schools, health care, transportation and the environment are cut.
As we have said before, the tax cut on corporate dividends will put the pressure on corporations to increase their dividends instead of investing in their plants. The capital gains tax cut gives stockholders an incentive to sell, which will further depress stock prices. There is no rising tide there, folks, nor should we expect the 1.4 million additional jobs Bush has promised by next year.
The Federal Reserve will keep interest rates low until the 2004 election. After that, Galbraith predicts, the Fed will raise interest rates to defend the deflating dollar. "Households will hit the debt wall. The housing bubble will pop. Household spending will tank. Many will lose their over-mortgaged homes." Then, faced with the fiscal crisis brought on by the $2 trillion in tax cuts Bush already has gotten, the Republicans will profess that it is obliged to make deep cuts in domestic spending, including the privatization of Social Security and Medicare.
"And then, the Bush revolution will be complete. Just as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society sought to complete Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Bush's plan is to finish up Ronald Reagan's first two years. Reagan wanted to take down Social Security at that time -- but the Democrats stopped him. ... It appears that Bush in 2005 is determined to complete the project of 1981."
Texas again is the model, Galbraith said. "As governor, Bush already did here what he now plans for the country. He cut taxes irresponsibly, earned his spurs, and then moved on. Now his Republican successors are out on the battlefield, executing the wounded. That will be our fate, too, as a nation, if we let this tax bill lead to election victory for Bush and the Republicans next year." -- JMC