Newly selected House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is getting some remarkably good press, considering his remarkably sordid political pedigree.
ABC News referred to the grizzled veteran of Capitol Hill, who was elected to the House when George Bush the Dad was president and Democrat Tom Foley was the speaker of the House, as a "fresh face." The network's report on the House Republican Caucus vote to select a replacement for the indicted Tom DeLay was headlined: "New Leader, Ohio Rep. John Boehner, Campaigned as a Reformer."
The Los Angeles Times announced, with no apparent sense of irony: "By choosing Boehner to fill DeLay's shoes in the House, the party hopes to move past scandals."
Newsday just went for it, declaring above its report on Boehner's election: "A promise of reform wins vote."
As they say in the newsroom: Don't believe everything you read in the headlines.
Boehner is an old-fashioned shakedown artist whose promise of "change" amounts to little more than a pledge that he won't get caught like DeLay did. The Ohioan whose close ties to Wisconsin Rep. Mark Green raise more questions about the Republican gubernatorial candidate's ethics may be smoother than the Texan, but only a fool, or a Washington pundit looking to cozy up to the new boss, would mistake a better haircut and the absence of the stench of bug spray as evidence of ethics.
The best take on Boehner's elevation to the top of the congressional food chain comes not from the Washington press corps but from one of the city's watchdogs: Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
Referring to Boehner's victory over the presumed favorite, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in the House leadership contest as "a selection of Tweedle Dum over Tweedle Dee," Claybrook explained, "The rejection of Rep. Blunt shows that rank-and-file Republicans are aware the corruption scandal that has shaken Washington could put their majority status at risk. But the elevation of Rep. Boehner, himself a product and proponent of the systemic problem of cronyism and influence-peddling that afflicts our nation's capital, is not a sign that business as usual will end."
Claybrook invites Americans to consider these facts about the man who, because of Speaker Dennis Hastert's obvious limitations, will now be the most powerful player in the House of Representatives:
• Boehner recently characterized Hastert's plan to ban privately funded travel as "childish" and dismissed the need for a ban on gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress. "If some members' vote can be bought for a $20 lunch, they don't need to be here," he said. Later, Boehner backed away from his characterization of the travel ban as "childish," but not the sentiment underlying his remark.
• Boehner's political action committee collected nearly $300,000 from private student lending companies and for-profit academic institutions from 2003-04. Boehner has used his chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee to promote their pet causes legislation that would make it more difficult to cut the fees on government student loans, which would cut into the private lenders market share, and legislation that would provide millions in subsidies to for-profit colleges and trade schools. (For more details on this, see a Jan. 28 report in the Washington Post.)
• Boehner has taken more than $157,000 in free trips, placing him seventh among 638 current and former members of Congress, including senators, in the value of privately funded travel accepted between 2000 and 2005, according to American Radioworks. These included a $4,869 trip to Scotland in 2000 and a $9,050 trip to Rome in 2001, both of which were sponsored by the Ripon Educational Fund, a nonprofit group largely run by business lobbyists. Family members traveled with him for free on both trips.
• An exceptional number of former Boehner staff members at least 24 have passed through the revolving door from government service to find work in the private sector as lobbyists or corporate public affairs specialists. (For more on this, see a Feb. 1 report in The Hill newspaper.)
• Boehner preceded DeLay as the head of the "K Street Operation," the Republicans' efforts to coordinate policy and fundraising with well-heeled lobbyists, which since has been dubbed the "K Street Project." But the Ohioan lost the job to DeLay in 1998 after he was voted out as head of the Republican Conference. (For more on this, see a Dec. 21, 1998, report in the Baltimore Sun.)
• Boehner caught a large amount of flak for handing out checks to his colleagues from tobacco company PACs on the floor of Congress in 1995. Although not illegal, it certainly showed poor judgment but was consistent with his role at the time as the party's chief liaison with K Street. (For more on this, see a May 10, 1996, report in the New York Times.)
Boehner's history explains why principled Republicans in both the conservative and moderate camps backed a third candidate for the majority leader post, Arizona Rep. John Shadegg, who promised to "clean up" the House. Shadegg described his race against Boehner and Blunt as "a choice between real reform and the status quo."
With Boehner's election, the status quo has prevailed. And as Claybrook notes with her usual bluntness and accuracy that is an ugly result not just for House Republicans but for America.
"Elevating a leader of the current broken system to be majority leader is an affront to voters and a stain on the Republican Party," Claybrook argues. "If the past is any guide, Boehner will now use this key position to undercut ethics and lobbying reforms in the House of Representatives."
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.
© 2006 The Capital Times