Sunday, July 16, 2006

New House Majority Leader Keeps Old Ties to Lobbyists

The New York Times
New House Majority Leader Keeps Old Ties to Lobbyists

Representative John A. Boehner won the job of House majority leader amid a post-Abramoff clamor for an overhaul of lobbying and ethics rules. But nearly six months later, the changes are still tied up in Congress.

And far from trying to put the brakes on lobbyists and the money they channel into Republican coffers, Mr. Boehner, who has portrayed his ties to Washington lobbyists as something to be proud of, has stepped on the gas.

He has been holding fund-raisers at lobbyists’ offices, flying to political events on corporate planes and staying at a golf resort with a business group that has a direct stake in issues before Congress.

Tapping a rich vein of longstanding relationships with lobbyists and their corporate clients, Mr. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has raised campaign contributions at a rate of about $10,000 a day since February, surpassing the pace set by former Representative Tom DeLay after he became majority leader in 2002, a review of federal filings shows.

His fund-raising pace is roughly twice what it was before he became majority leader in February; in April his two federal committees took in $334,500 from political action committees, a monthly take that Mr. DeLay did not match for more than two years after the elections in 2002.

Mr. Boehner’s biggest donors include the political action committees of lobbying firms, drug and cigarette makers, banks, health insurers, oil companies and military contractors. Seven American Indian tribes with casinos have contributed $32,000.

And despite an intensified spotlight on Congressional trip taking, Mr. Boehner flew to a golf resort in Boca Raton, Fla., in March for a convention of commodities traders, who have contributed more than $100,000 to his campaigns and are lobbying against a proposed federal tax on futures transactions.

During the trip, Mr. Boehner assured his hosts that Congress would most likely not approve a tax they opposed.

His leadership committee, the Freedom Project, which in recent months has enlisted the use of corporate planes from Federal Express, Aflac and the Florida Power and Light Company, later reimbursed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for the cost of the Boca Raton trip.

In addition, his campaign committees recently hired two people from lobbying groups for the financial and insurance industries, reflecting a continued revolving-door relationship between leadership offices on Capitol Hill and interest groups with stakes in legislation.

One of the two recently hired, Amy Hobart, worked for Mr. Boehner before becoming political affairs manager at the Bond Market Association. The group has contributed $50,000 to Mr. Boehner and lobbied for legislation he sponsored that would loosen investment restrictions on pension fund managers.

None of these activities is illegal or violates ethics rules, and they are not unique to Mr. Boehner.

Aides to Mr. Boehner have said he is sincere about clamping down on abuses that lead to illegal or unethical behavior by lawmakers and interest groups.

Kevin Madden, his communications director, said Mr. Boehner’s approach was reflected in House proposals that focused on greater disclosure of information rather than on limits to what members of Congress and lobbyists can do. Mr. Boehner, Mr. Madden said, has seen no need to change his own practices in dealing with lobbyists, taking trips or raising money since becoming majority leader, believing that transparency is the key to restoring public trust.

Mr. Madden said it was not surprising that Mr. Boehner would attract more campaign contributions in his new leadership post, which comes with the expectation that he will also help raise money for Republican colleagues. The influx of money — more than $1.1 million from February to May, mostly from political action committees and lobbyists — was “a sign of increased effort and increased success,” he said.

Mr. Boehner’s credentials as a reformer rest largely on his opposition to earmarks, the provisions inserted into spending bills by members of Congress to pay for favored projects. Earmarks have figured in both recent big scandals to hit Congress — one centered on the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the other on former Representative Randy Cunningham, a California Republican who was forced to resign his seat after pleading guilty to taking bribes.

But to some longtime Washington observers, Mr. Boehner’s dealings with interest groups are affirmation that despite the change in leadership and a political climate that appeared conducive to changes in longstanding practices in dealing with lobbyists, the standard currency of influence and access on Capitol Hill — campaign contributions, junkets and jobs — remains largely unchanged.

“The Republican Party needed somebody to say they were a reform candidate, so he said it,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor of government and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College. “But in reality, he’s carrying on in the tradition not just of DeLay, but past Democratic and Republican leaders alike.”

Mr. Boehner’s calendar for June and July included several fund-raisers by lobbyists and political action committees, including the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc. and the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America.

A review of Mr. Boehner’s recent contributors finds a “who’s who” of Washington special interests, many with issues before Congress. The Indian tribes have fought to keep gambling legislation from affecting their casinos. Investment companies that have contributed tens of thousands of dollars have a stake in legislation to update the pension system.

The warm relationship between Mr. Boehner and Washington insiders began with the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Gary Andres, for example, is a lobbyist who got to know Mr. Boehner in the 1990’s, and turned to him years later to sponsor a bill, sought by an association of well drillers, that authorized $50 million in federal money to develop private drinking water wells in rural areas.

Mr. Andres said he worked with Mr. Boehner to make the bill “something that he could agree with philosophically.”

Mr. Boehner got it approved as an amendment to the 2002 omnibus farm bill.

“I’ve known him since he came to Congress,” Mr. Andres said of Mr. Boehner. “I consider him a friend. I’ve worked with him on a number of things.”

More than 10 of Mr. Boehner’s former staff members have gone to work for lobbying firms, and his former chief of staff, Joyce Gates, is married to a lobbyist, Bruce Gates. Mrs. Gates and her husband, whose firm has contributed more than $100,000 to Mr. Boehner and represents dozens of blue chip companies, have helped produce popular “warehouse parties” for Mr. Boehner at Republican conventions since 1996.

Mr. Boehner’s views on what is permissible were outlined in a 37-page manifesto that he sent to House Republicans when he was campaigning for majority leader in January.

In the part dealing with “institutional ethics and reform,” Mr. Boehner made a virtue of being friendly with lobbyists, saying that “absent our personal, longstanding relationships, there is no way for us to tell” which ones might be corrupt.

A favorite tool of lobbyists is travel invitations to members of Congress, which has emerged as a contentious issue this year. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, has suggested banning privately paid travel, but Mr. Boehner has opposed that idea.

Mr. Boehner is a frequent traveler, having accepted 39 trips since 2000, compared to 2 trips for Mr. Hastert and 18 for Mr. DeLay, according to House travel records compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign and lobbying activities. Mr. Madden said such trips were valuable because they allowed “members to find out about the issues that they’re voting on.”

In March, Mr. Boehner kept to his tradition of attending the Futures Industry Association convention at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. He and his wife, Deborah, have flown to at least six of the annual events, usually at the expense of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which has spent more than $25,000 on the trips.

This year, because Mr. Boehner combined the trip with fund-raising events for Florida Republicans, he used his leadership committee to reimburse the exchange for his travel costs, according to campaign finance filings.

Mr. Boehner took part in the “Washington Outlook” panel discussion on the last day of the four-day conference.

According to Bloomberg News, which covered the event, Mr. Boehner addressed a legislative issue of concern to the association, the proposed tax on futures transaction, offering assurances that Congress would most likely not enact it.