John Boehner : Just another Congressman on the take

Writes Jeffrey Birbaum in The Washington Post:

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), who rose to power in the wake of a congressional lobbying scandal, spent the equivalent of nearly six months on privately funded trips over the past six years, according to a new study by a nonpartisan research group.

The Center for Public Integrity said that Boehner accepted 42 privately sponsored trips from January 2000 to December 2005. That put him on the road to other countries and “golfing hotspots,” often with his wife, Debbie, for about half a year, “only nine days of which he listed as being ‘at personal expense,’ ” the center said.

Boehner also flew at least 45 times on corporate jets owned by companies “with a financial stake in congressional affairs” from June 2001 through September 2005, the center reported. The corporations on whose planes Boehner flew included tobacco companies such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (15 times), UST Inc. (seven times) and Swisher International Inc. (seven times).

“Boehner is one of Congress’ most frequent corporate fliers,” Roberta Baskin, executive director of the center, said, based on a review of other lawmakers’ disclosure forms.

The report is the most detailed and comprehensive look at the new majority leader. Boehner, who was elected to the post last month, had been criticized by lawmakers who opposed his elevation for being too close to lobbyists.

Boehner rejected that characterization and offered himself as an agent of change, especially on the issue of congressional ethics. The center concluded, however, that Boehner built “a network of political and business relationships” with corporations and other interests “not unlike” his predecessor, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose tenure in the job was controversial in large part because of his close ties to lobbyists and lobbying groups. DeLay stepped down last year after he was indicted in Texas on charges of political money laundering.

In the early debate over how to crack down on lobbyists — a byproduct of the guilty plea in January of former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff — Boehner had been a leading opponent of a ban on privately paid travel. One of his first public pronouncements after winning the second-ranking position in the House leadership was to declare his disagreement with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who wanted to end travel paid for by private interests.

Boehner pushed instead for enhanced disclosure of privately provided benefits including travel, meals and gifts — the direction the House now appears to be taking in pending legislation. In the meantime, he has accepted a compromise that would ban privately paid travel this year until the House ethics committee devises new rules.

Capitol Hill Blue reported Boehner’s fondness for lobbyist-paid travel and PAC contributions in a Feb. 9 column by publisher Doug Thompson:

Boehner made his name as a member of the “Gang of Seven,” a group of Congressional “reformers” who took on the House Bank that allowed members to overdraw their checking accounts at will and without penalty and helped expose Democratic powerhouse Dan Rostenkowski’s “cash for stamps” scam that cost him his seat in Congress and sent him to jail.

But while Boehner campaigned as the great reformer, he worked the system behind the scenes, scamming it for campaign cash and favors, cozying up to the same lobbyists and dealmakers as fellow Republican Tom DeLay. In 1992, he argued publicly for the elimination of PACs because they gave most of their money to the Democrats who controlled Congress. After Republicans took control in 1994, Boehner changed his tune and became a leading advocate of PACs and the money they could dump into the coffers of the new GOP leadership.

Boehner joined with DeLay and other Republican leaders in browbeating lobbying firms into hiring more Republicans and threatened PACs with exclusion from GOP briefings and events if they did not donate more to GOP candidates and causes.

His style was smoother than DeLay, the GOP pit bull who openly bullied and once told me “fuck the law. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the law.” Boehner would smile and talk in diplomatic terms but the smile masked a ruthlessness that said “play ball our way or you don’t play in our ballpark.”

“Make no mistake about it,” he told me in 1991. “We will remember those who helped us and those who did not will find themselves outside looking in. That’s the way the game is played.”

Boehner quickly learned how the game is played in Washington. Since 2000, he has allowed special interest groups to finance 41 trips for he and his family to Rome, Venice, Paris and Edinburgh, as well as domestic resort spots like Boca Raton, Fla., and Pebble Beach, Calif.

He often goes on the floor of the House of Representatives to praise the liquor industry for what he calls their “untiring efforts” to fight underage drinking and drunk driving. The industry bought these paid advertisements from Boehner with more than $200,000 in campaign contributions.