"What, is Katherine Harris counting the ballots in there?" Several journalists shot out the same joke after flak emerged from the closed-door House Republican conference meeting to announce that more ballots than actual voters had been tallied in the February 2 election for majority leader. The snafu resonated uncomfortably in the air of corruption and disarray that had initially set the context for this heated race to replace disgraced party leader Tom DeLay. So Republicans were relieved when they discovered that the counting disparity stemmed from an innocent clerical error and would not, in fact, produce a Florida-style donnybrook.
A run-off ballot was in order, however, and when word of the final tally leaked to the journalists and staffers shuffling distractedly outside the caucus room in the Cannon Office Building, the shock was palpable. By a vote of 122-109 on the second ballot, establishment favorite and DeLay protégé Roy Blunt of Missouri was bested by John Boehner (BAY-ner) of Ohio.
Many members, as several confirmed in chats after the vote, shared that sense of shock. "It was a highly dynamic environment in there," said Mark Kirk of Illinois. "It was tense." Many credited Boehner's victory to John Shadegg's insurgent candidacy, which conservative outlets and advocates across the country had championed as the key to redemption and spiritual restoration. "If Shadegg hadn't run, Blunt would have won on the first ballot," insisted Shadegg ally Jeff Flake of Arizona. "Shadegg put the focus on reform and change." Said Colorado's Joel Hefley, the former chairman of the ethics committee who twice admonished The Hammer in 2004 before being purged from the panel as punishment: "This vote signaled an attempt to get away from DeLay and his image. He was dragging the party down." Others were less blunt, but sounded the same note. "This is a new beginning!" cried Ohio's David Hobson. "I'm hopeful it bodes well for us in November."
Let it be said that if John Boehner's ascension does forestall GOP electoral losses, it will only illustrate to Democrats the costs of having personalized the systemic corruption of modern Republican governance in the outsized figures of DeLay and Jack Abramoff. For Boehner's career embodies the core elements of modern Republicanism -- pay-to-play machine politics and government by lobbyist -- every bit as well as DeLay's or Blunt's does. What's more, the reforms Boehner looks to be championing in the coming months -- mostly centered around the sudden new conservative bogeyman of congressional earmarking -- are not merely cosmetic, but fundamentally fraudulent.
Boehner's election capped a slow, methodical journey back to a leadership position following his ouster in 1998, and his candidacy was billed to the conference as a homecoming. His campaign heavily played up his role in the original 1994 Republican takeover, which the party has come to view as an Edenic era of principle and idealism before the fall into corruption and big-government Republicanism that DeLay supposedly ushered in. Needless to say, Boehner's actual role in the 1994 revolution belies such revisionism.
The former owner of a plastics company in western Ohio was first elected to Congress in 1990. As the Republican Conference chair following the 1994 takeover, Boehner was central to initiating the marriage between K Street and the GOP congressional majority that is now commonly associated with DeLay. He served as the new majority's main liaison to business, conceiving of and hosting the Thursday Group, a weekly strategy meeting with business lobbyists and trade associations -- the GOP's "closest friends," as Boehner put it in an interview with journalist Elizabeth Drew at the time. The now-notorious 1995 incident in which he handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists to colleagues on the House floor only underscores the point: The systems and practices that might now be thought of collectively as "DeLayism" were central to the founding era of the modern Republican Congress, and Boehner was one of their most energetic exponents.
Boehner fell from the leadership at the same time Gingrich did, in 1998, but almost instantly began long-range preparations for a comeback. From his perch as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, he built his power base out of the same materials as that of his rival DeLay's: money -- vast sums of it -- and an extensive K Street machine. Boehner's huge fund-raising apparatus has garnered his leadership political action committee, the Freedom Project, cash amounts that well exceed typical levels for chairmen of committees (such as Education and Workforce) not considered top-tier in the eyes of corporate lobbyists. His PAC has dispensed about $3 million to fellow Republicans since 1998 -- $150,000 to 30 lawmakers in December 2005 alone, just as the leadership race began heating up.
Boehner's war chest in part rests on the kind of classic special-interest relationships common to committee chairs. Student-loan providers -- particularly the nation's largest, Sallie Mae -- are top contributors to Boehner, and the chairman serves up legislation consistently favorable to their interests. But the congressman's power also stems from the cultivation of a network of K Street allies and pioneering innovations in methods of influence-peddling that can both fairly be described as DeLayesque.
Boehner's lobbyist supporters include an array of former staffers, including Marc Lampkin of Quinn Gillespie, as well as allies from his Thursday Group days, such as Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and Henry Gandy of The Duberstein Group. Bruce Gates, a lobbyist at Washington Council Ernst & Young (WCEY) and a longtime Boehner supporter, also serves as the Freedom Project's treasurer. (Individuals and political funds associated with WCEY's parent company Ernst & Young in turn contributed more than $83,000 to the PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)
Gates and Gandy, meanwhile, became famous for devising a high-priced soiree and hob-knobbing session on Boehner's behalf at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, renting out a warehouse and organizing a multi-night extravaganza sponsored by corporations, lobbyists, and interest groups. The two repeated their efforts at the 2000 and 2004 GOP conventions, and the shindigs acquired the moniker of "Boehner parties." The 2004 Boehner party in New York boasted 68 corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Eli Lilly -- and Sallie Mae. In this as in so many other areas, John Boehner was a true pioneer, and he's utilized similar approaches to cultivate private funding for lavish annual parties and golf trips.
It probably shouldn't come as a shock to see a politician with Boehner's history blanch at the prospect of serious lobbying and ethics reforms. He hasn't bothered much to conceal his skepticism about the need to address the Abramoff scandals by putting forth a slew of new lobbying regulations. Boehner's stated coolness to fellow party leaders' cosmetic proposals to ban gifts and travel and to prohibit ex-members from using the House gym reflects the will of his conference. As Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle explains: "It's clear there was some quick, serious pushback by Republicans at some of what we would consider the simplest and easiest-to-do reforms."
If there's little GOP enthusiasm for ethics reforms, however, there is serious momentum behind a different kind of crackdown that has, over the past few months, emerged as a galvanizing conservative rallying cry and a seeming panacea for all that ails the modern Republican Party: earmark reform.
Earmarks are more commonly known as pork -- funds specifically designated for a named project at the request of that locality's representative -- and there's no denying that the practice of earmarking has metastasized under GOP rule. Commentators from George Will to David Brooks to editors at National Review have argued that earmarking lies at the heart of both the corruption scandals currently sullying the party's image and its betrayal of small-government principle.
It so happens that Boehner's one concession to that principle is a long-standing opposition to earmarking; he has refused to engage in the practice his entire career. That's noble. But as a response to the "culture of corruption" charges currently embroiling the party, earmark reform is a non sequitur. Appropriations pork is a classic mainstay of American politics, but precisely because earmarks are popular, they don't typically depend on bribery. Earmarking simply isn't a central feature of either the modern GOP's brand of machine politics or the Abramoff scandals. As Common Cause's Boyle puts it, "We definitely see earmark reform as a second-tier reform. Sure, we would support it, but it really doesn't get at the heart of the issues here."
Earmarks have nothing to do with the K Street Project, or the revolving door between Hill staffers and lobbying shops that sustain DeLayism, or the holistic merging of the corporate lobby and the Republican Party that is the central story of the modern Congress. Earmarks also have nothing to do with the standard combination of industry giveaways and policy illiteracy underlying legislative monstrosities like the Medicare prescription-drug plan. And as a response to the modern GOP's abandonment of small-government principles, earmark reform is even more of a red herring. The grand total of all appropriations earmarks last year amounted to a little more than 1 percent of the total federal budget.
To make a real dent in the size of government would require serious and sustained cuts in entitlement spending that would prove politically suicidal for the GOP. And to address the party's culture of corruption in a serious way would dry the money stream that undergirds Republican coordination and discipline and sustains Republican rule.
Conservatives may wish to delude themselves into believing that the GOP's current shortcomings are largely the product of Tom DeLay's personal unscrupulousness and ideological betrayals, and that redemption is imminent. But they aren't likely to find sustenance for such delusions in the leadership of John Boehner. Once again, the GOP has a majority leader it deserves.