John Boehner (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Useless House GOP: No legislating, but plenty of "messaging"

John Boehner's House has cut legislative staffers to focus on communications. But what aren't they communicating?


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Jim Newell
July 2, 2014 7:13PM (UTC)

Speaker Boehner's decision not to move immigration legislation through the House this year is the strongest demonstration yet of the New Truce: President Obama will go ahead and make limited progress on his policy goals through executive action, while Boehner and Co. get to stand on the sidelines and holler and call him a tyrant and sue him. To some, it may seem strange and even inappropriate that American taxpayer dollars are going toward the salaries of a House of legislators who don't legislate, but merely scream bloody murder. If they want to yell and do nothing else, fine, have fun, but can't they do that for free?

Heavens, no. Coming up with sleek tags like "Obama is tyrant" or "Obama is bad overreach president guy" is an expensive business all in itself. It takes dozens of salaried members of the United States House of Representatives to come up with these sort of rich, focus-grouped zingers. Even if the House wanted to pursue useful and good-faith legislation, it wouldn't have the manpower: All of those resources now go into P.R., communications, strategic communications, messaging and general spouting off.

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USA Today reports that since 2011, "Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has led a cost-cutting effort that has trimmed staff for House committees by nearly 20%, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars." Woohoo, savings! "But the number of committee staff responsible for press and communications work has increased by nearly 15% over the same period, according to House spending records." The proper Capitol Hill term for this sort of resource shift is a "pivot to messaging." Others might call it "firing the worthwhile people and then taking the saved money and then lighting that money on fire." Boehner's spokesperson says that "effective oversight [of the Obama administration] requires communicating with the American people." Yes, if there's one surefire way of keeping tabs on executive power run amok, it's hiring more social media directors.

You would think, then, if all this money has been shifted to communications, to better communicate developments to the American people, then someone working on, say, the House Ethics Committee could have communicated this tiny little rule change at some point in the process:

It's going to be a little more difficult to ferret out which members of Congress are lavished with all-expenses-paid trips around the world after the House has quietly stripped away the requirement that such privately sponsored travel be included on lawmakers' annual financial-disclosure forms.

The move, made behind closed doors and without a public announcement by the House Ethics Committee, reverses more than three decades of precedent. Gifts of free travel to lawmakers have appeared on the yearly financial form dating back its creation in the late 1970s, after the Watergate scandal. National Journal uncovered the deleted disclosure requirement when analyzing the most recent batch of yearly filings.

Isn't that odd? There must have been an oversight in the oversight process, here. One of the 400 billion communicators working for the House majority could have called up the newspapers and said, "Hey, it's my job to communicate, so here's a rule change we're making." Instead, National Journal had to go out and discover this for itself. Why didn't the communicators just do their jobs and tell National Journal about this? Is there something to be ashamed of about eliminating a post-Watergate requirement that members of Congress have to disclose when an interest group sends them on a junket to get pampered at a four-star hotel? Perhaps that might "look obviously bad" but who knows.

The tabs for these international excursions can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. One trip to Australia earlier this year cost nearly $50,000. Lawmakers are often invited to bring along their husbands or wives, fly in business class, and stay in plush four-star hotels. In the wake of the Abramoff scandal, lobbyists were banned from organizing or paying for these travels. But some of the nonprofits underwriting them today have extremely close ties to lobbying groups, including sharing staff, money, and offices.

Right. To say that these nonprofits have "extremely close ties to lobbying groups" is generous. One might even call them pass-throughs set up explicitly to skirt the law. As National Journal notes in the best example that comes to mind, the American Israel Education Foundation is a nonprofit that basically exists as an arm of AIPAC and takes hundreds of members of Congress, from both parties, on fancy trips to Israel. To learn about Israel! Well, this sounds a lot like lobbyists trying to grease up lawmakers. But never mind, no need to mention that on financial disclosure forms anymore.

The annual August recess starts in a few weeks. Why not move it up to today? It doesn't make a difference.


Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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