It would be tempting to herald theresignation of Tom DeLay - former majority leader in the US House of Representatives - as the end of an era. Tempting, but premature. Mr DeLay, who was indicted last September on election-related money laundering charges, was a friend of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist, who was last week sentenced to almost six years in prison for fraud and corruption.
Mr DeLay rose to prominence in 1994 in tandem with Newt Gingrich, the former speaker, when the Republicans took control of both houses for the first time in a generation. Brandishing his "Contract with America" Mr Gingrich promised to put an end to the era of big government and to cut back drastically on the thicket of federal regulations. It was a radical new dawn for American conservatism.
With less fanfare, Mr DeLay launched the "K Street Project" that sought to persuade, flatter and cajole Washington's lobby groups into the Republican camp. Mr Gingrich was outfoxed in a budget battle with president Bill Clinton in 1995 and his Republican Revolution lost steam. Mr DeLay, meanwhile, went from strength to strength. More than a decade later, it is evident which of the two men had a more lasting influence on the workings of America's federal government.
Since 1994 the number of lobby groups registered in Washington has risen almost fourfold to 36,000. The cost of "earmarks", by which lawmakers insert unrelated special interest subsidies into broader spending bills, skyrocketed to $62bn last year. And America's tax system has gone from thicket to forest. According to the Cato Institute, the number of pages of federal tax rules rose from 40,500 in 1995 to 66,498 this year. During a Republican-dominated era, the annual cost to taxpayers of complying with the tax code has more than doubled to $265bn.
Mr DeLay's K Street project bears much of the blame for the deterioration in the quality of legislation. That decline was also in evidence last week when the senate passed a heavily diluted version of plans to curtail the influence of lobby groups. It cut from $50 to $20 the cost of meals lawmakers can accept from lobbyists. But it left untouched the frequent "study trips" in which lobbyists fund the travels of lawmakers to plush resorts in exotic locations. Among the lobbyists breathing a sigh of relief last week were 29 former DeLay staff employees. Two others, including Mr Delay's former deputy chief of staff, have been indicted on corruption charges.
Meanwhile, John Boehner, who replaced Mr DeLay as majority leader, yesterday praised his predecessor's "integrity and honour". Mr Boehner came to the job promising to put an end to sleaze, in spite of having been caught distributing campaign checks from the tobacco industry on the house floor in 1995. Mr DeLay is quitting Congress. But his soul is marching on.
© Financial Times Ltd. 2006