The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress

Mark Binbaum and Jim Scherbeck’s The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stoen Congress (IMDB) plays like an agitprop border-state film noir, with witnesses often shrouded in heavy shadow describing in detail how a once unknown Congressman in Texas conspired to transform the Republican Party into what DeLay himself described as a “permanent majority.” Many viewers of the documentary will be familiar with the basics of DeLay’s tactics having seen them played out in the nightly news, but Birnbaum and Scherbenk’s documentary places this information ina coherent narrative that gave me a much more precise understanding of how the former House Majority Leader sought to undermine democratic process in his efforts to reshape government. As DeLay himself put it in a remarkably candid 1994 speech, “By the time we finish this poker game, there may not be a federal government left! Which would suit me just fine.”

Birnbaum and Scherbenk make their case carefully, avoiding many of the easy laugh lines that might make The Big Buy seem too partisan. In fact, the film opens with a conversation between two Texas Republican activists in their car, discussing the contempt that DeLay showed Repbicans who didn’t completely adhere to the party line. Intercut with this conversation, we see snippets of a 1994 interview with DeLay in which he stated his goal to eliminate the Department of Education, the NEH and NEA and to dramatically reduce the scope of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, OSHA, and HUD.

The documentary only stops briefly here, however, focusing instead on how DeLay sought to achieve this very limited vision of government, and this is where the crime drama elements really pick up steam, as local Texas politicians and political observers describe DeLay’s tactics, including his use of the Texas state house to redraw the state’s Congessional districts in order to create a larger Republican majority, in part by using illegal corporate money to fund Republican candidates for the Texas state house of representatives. In particular, Travis County DA Ronnie Earle offers a clear explanation of how DeLay’s scheme violated the law, bringing indictments not just against the former Congressman but also dozens of corporations (including Cracker Barrell, Bacardi, and others) who stood to benefit from DeLay’s scheme. We also hear from Jim Hightower who vividly illustrates how the redrawn districts have little to do with democracy. Standing at one busy intersection where three Congressional districts meet, Hightower explains that these districts stretch for hundreds of miles out from this point, illustrating the ways in which the redrawn districts had little to do with the values of represnting a specific community of voters.

It would be impossible to detail all of the relevant information Mark Binbaum and Jim Scherbeck have complied in this 90-minute documentary, but the film is rather sobering in its depiction of how DeLay used a variety of illegal tactics to reshape Congress and government in the image he wanted. With his redrawn districts, DeLay managed to add five reliably Republican seats and as we learn from the film, those five votes have made the difference in a number of close decisions (see teh discussion at the Big Buy website). The Big Buy is a sobering account of how easily democracy can be hijacked by a small, but powerful, group, raising important questions about our political process. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about Frank Popper’s Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, in part because both films raise so many important questions about the process by whcih our representatives are elected.

Update: I forgot to mention that The Big Buy is being distributed by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films. I saw the film last night at the Wednesday night DC Drinking Liberally event at Mark & Orlando’s (sadly, my last Drinking Liberally in DC before The Big Move), but you can order the film from its official website.

Update 2: About a week after the “premiere” of The Big Buy, the Supreme Court ruled that some of the new boundaries drawn by DeLay’s redistricting efforts violated the Voting Rights Act but upheld the state’s right to reshape Congressional distrcits, not just once a decade as the Texas Democrats claimed. Full story via the Washington Post.

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