Only in this corrupted Congress could a politician like John Boehner successfully present himself to his colleagues and the press as a "reformer." Already the new House majority leader has demonstrated that he will disappoint even the most minimal expectations of ethical renewal.
"Nobody knows more about reforming this place than I do," blustered Boehner during the brief leadership contest, straining to define himself as a sanitary alternative to Roy Blunt, who will now serve as his whip. Having won, however, he moved swiftly not to institute change but to discourage it.
Scarcely had Boehner assumed his new responsibilities, in fact, when he brushed away any new restrictions on the resort trips and foreign junkets provided by lobbyists seeking to influence him and his colleagues. That proposal arose from public outrage over the first-class jaunts to Scotland and the South Pacific that Jack Abramoff had used to reward compliant congressmen and their aides.
Outlawing travel payola sounded good, especially in an election year. But how is Boehner supposed to maintain his low handicap and legendary year-round tan unless somebody pays for his frequent Florida golfing trips? He reportedly took six jaunts to Boca Raton last year.
Asked Feb. 5 whether he now plans to ban such subsidized vacations, he dryly responded: "I have my doubts about that." His opposition is more a matter of policy than perks, he explained. "We can't lock members up in a cubbyhole here in Washington and never let them see what's going on around the country and around the world." The legislative process would clearly suffer if members were unable to observe the difficulties of life in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Pebble Beach, Calif.; and Boca.
Boehner sounds equally disinclined to restrict the scandalous member earmarks in spending bills, a tough task he had promised to undertake if elected. Yet so far there has barely been a whisper of protest against this farce. That whole House reform thing is just so last month.
Back then, Boehner and his supporters took pains to distinguish him from Blunt, the acting leader and Tom DeLay protégé whose wife and son are both lobbyists for Altria, the tobacco company formerly known as Philip Morris. (According to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill weekly, a few of Boehner's lobbyist pals called reporters to suggest that he wasn't nearly as compromised by the K Street crowd as his rival. That must have been persuasive.)
Whatever the unpleasant realities might be, the optics of choosing Boehner were thought to be better because he gave off less of the stink of Abramoff and DeLay. The speck of truth in that argument was the lack of affection between Boehner and DeLay, which dated to the overthrow of Newt Gingrich in 1998.
It was during an earlier spasm of pseudo-reform, back in the early '90s when Democrats still controlled Congress, that Boehner first made his mark as a Gingrich lieutenant. He was a vocal scourge of the penny-ante chiseling of the House of Representatives bank, which routinely allowed members of both parties to write checks against insufficient balances. That practice, denounced by Boehner and Gingrich as a moral outrage, helped the Republicans win control of the House, and with the new speaker's patronage, Boehner began to rise in the House leadership.
Almost instantly and quite spectacularly he violated the new majority's vow of moral hygiene. In 1995, only months after the supposedly reform-minded GOP majority took power, he was observed handing out checks from the tobacco lobby to his colleagues on the House floor, just before a crucial vote. He apologized for that tasteless episode, which he promised not to repeat. The fall of Gingrich eclipsed Boehner as well.
His sudden return from the back benches succeeded mainly because the full details of his total immersion in Washington's political money culture didn't emerge until after his surprise victory. He could hardly be closer to the people paid to influence him if he were married to one of them.
Boehner resides in a Capitol Hill apartment rented from a lobbyist whose clients are directly affected by legislation Boehner has co-written or overseen as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Those clients include restaurant interests, for example, that oppose minimum-wage increases, a perspective that the new majority leader shares. His spokesman told the Washington Post, which broke the story about his apartment, that his lobbyist landlord "does not lobby John Boehner on any issue and has not lobbied him on any issue during the time period in which John has been renting the property." Maybe he just leaves a Post-it on Boehner's refrigerator.
Ordinarily Boehner spends his winter break cruising the Caribbean with two of his best friends, who also happen to be among the capital's most prominent lobbyists. Those two Boehner buddies are known for the fabulous events they have sponsored in his honor at every Republican National Convention since 1996. Known as the "best little warehouse" parties, these bashes sometimes last until dawn.
Boehner's former staff members spin through the revolving door to become lobbyists in unusually high numbers, even for Washington. The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan monitor of government ethics, identified at least 14 former aides to Boehner who had joined lobbying firms after leaving his staff since 1999. By contrast, the group found only three lobbyists who had been aides to Blunt, and two who had worked for John Shadegg, the Arizona Republican who briefly joined the leadership race.
The final irony in this farce is that even as he prepared his "reform" campaign for the leadership, Boehner was handing out cash to his Republican colleagues. Three weeks before declaring his candidacy to succeed DeLay, he gave contributions totaling $150,000 to 30 colleagues from his personal PAC, known as the Freedom Project. About half of the recipients, including fellow Ohioan Jean Schmidt, publicly announced that they planned to vote for him.
Naturally he collected most of the money for those timely donations from lobbyists -- notably the representatives of companies he regulates as chairman of the education committee. Boehner is notorious for the favors he regularly performs for profit-making educational institutions and finance companies that make student loans, and they have unstintingly rewarded him for his loyalty. Those interests have provided him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to his campaign fund and his leadership PAC, as well as other favors.
Late last year Boehner oversaw student-loan legislation that cut federal aid drastically, penalized students who receive direct loans from the federal government, and protected private lenders such as Sallie Mae, which gave him $102,000 during the 2004 election cycle.
All this logrolling and boodling and junketeering is perfectly legal, of course -- and Boehner means to keep it that way. He can be trusted to uphold the traditions of the Ohio Republican Party and its favorite son, Warren G. Harding, whatever he may say about reform. Coming from him, such talk deserves to be regarded just as H.L. Mencken described Harding's inaugural address: "It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."