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Will Big Tobacco's Former Bag-Man Really Be the Next Speaker?

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, September 16, 2010

With their loud voices and antic style, the "tea party" activists may lead voters to expect something new and different if the Republican Party returns to power. But observing the man who would wield that power if his party wins a midterm majority should swiftly dispel that illusion.

There is nothing fresh or surprising about Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the would-be speaker, a figure so closely associated with corporate special interests that he looks, sounds and behaves exactly like a lobbyist. He golfs, drinks, smokes and maintains an unusually bronzed complexion thanks to company jets that whisk him away to his favorite Florida resorts. He seems as if he could have stepped straight out of "Thank You for Smoking," Christopher Buckley's classic spoof of Washington's cynical, morally empty K Street.
Smoking and K Street, of course, evoke the memory of Boehner's first big moment in national politics almost 15 years ago, when he performed a cameo as the tobacco industry's bagman. Back then, ascending the leadership ladder as chairman of the House Republican Conference, he was spotted handing out checks from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company on the House floor. This spectacle of corruption was so blatant that even some members of Congress were outraged and demanded that he stop.

Following a blast of bad publicity, he apologized, sort of. "I thought: 'Yeah, I can imagine why somebody would be upset. It sure doesn't look good.' It's not an excuse, but the floor is the only place you get to see your colleagues," he told The Associated Press. "It was a matter of convenience. You make a mistake, admit it and go on. I just feel bad about it."

Not bad enough to change his convenient, highly profitable relationships with lobbyists and their clients. Yet while other Republicans became notorious for their political promiscuity -- and sometimes paid a heavy price -- Boehner somehow escaped censure. His fellow Ohioan and former House colleague Bob Ney went to prison as a casualty of the corruption scandal that sank super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but Boehner actually received more money from the Abramoff operation than Ney. Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, was renowned for his prowess in squeezing money from lobbyists, but Boehner raised more money than "the Hammer" did during a critical period in 2006. He even rented a Capitol Hill apartment from a lobbyist who had been hired to influence him -- a blatant conflict of interest that the House Ethics Committee somehow failed to notice under Republican control.

When his party held the majority, Boehner chaired the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which sounds innocuous but attracts lobbyists like a cowpie draws flies. Overseeing a broad array of issues, from the minimum wage to student loans, he made the most of their interest in his legislation. He achieved a kind of masterpiece with the passage of a bill that favored the private student loan industry over direct government lending -- at an estimated cost to taxpayers of 9 cents on the dollar. Students, families and taxpayers lost in that deal, but Boehner's banker pals made out like ... bankers. Over the past two decades, he has collected more than $120,000 from Sallie Mae, the mammoth student loan outfit -- and enjoyed several trips to Florida golf destinations in the Sallie Mae corporate jet.

Boehner's career is a litany of such pay-for-play scams, which is what pass for achievements in his world. That the Republican caucus would elect him as its leader reveals the stale reality behind the populist rhetoric. Every Republican congressional candidate represents a vote to elect Speaker Boehner -- and to restore the same old policies and attitudes led to a ruinous decade of misrule.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).

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