• U.S.

Can This Elephant Be Cleaned Up?

13 minute read
Perry Bacon Jr. and Mike Allen

The spreadsheet, bristling with million-dollar totals, jumped from flat screen to flat screen last winter in the Washington underground of fund-raising consultants and political-action committees. It had been created by allies of Congressman John Boehner, an Ohio Republican known for massive, raucous late-night parties. A window into the science of the shakedown, the spreadsheet calculated the “efficiency” of fund-raising committees headed by various leaders of the House, showing which were most generous to other Republicans. Boehner’s backers were thrilled when the widely forwarded spreadsheet produced a front-page headline in The Hill, a newspaper focused on Congress, saying BOEHNER BOASTS OF BIG BUCKS. Eight months later, his team smiled again when the paper ran a list of Boehner’s “K Street Cabinet,” loyal lobbyists and other power brokers who would help run the show if he achieved his longtime ambition of becoming House Speaker or majority leader. With Tom DeLay’s machine still in charge of the Capitol, those were the credentials that would get an aspiring lawmaker taken seriously.

Now, a few indictments and plea agreements later, the political landscape has shifted mightily, and Boehner is seeking to replace DeLay by running for majority leader as Mr. Clean, an outsider bent on shaking up the system that superlobbyist Jack Abramoff mastered and that then snarled him and, so far, mainly the Republican Party in scandal. “Boehner Outlines Plan for Reform, Renewal and Changing the Status Quo,” blared a statement Boehner issued less than 48 hours after DeLay announced he would not seek re-election to the House’s No. 2 post. “We’re kind of stuck in neutral, and we need to renew ourselves,” Boehner told TIME.

But will that renewal be more than cosmetic? DeLay’s announcement, marking the rueful surrender of a warrior who once wielded such unquestioned power that no bill could reach the President’s desk without his assent, touched off a furious scramble at the Capitol among ambitious members who want a leadership seat when the music stops on Feb. 2, the date set for internal House G.O.P. voting. The election falls two days after President George W. Bush’s planned State of the Union address and could do as much to define the Republican Party at the start of the midterm election year as any pronouncement from the White House. “If we don’t get our act together,” says Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois, “we’ll be the minority party next year.”

A loss of 15 seats in November would leave Bush with a Democrat-controlled House for the final quarter of his presidency, which his advisers believe could mean a nightmare of gridlock and investigations into Administration decisions and activities. In perhaps an even worse scenario for Bush’s legacy, one of the city’s best-connected Republicans said his friends are starting to fearfully consider what he calls the “whole shebang” theory: that the party will hold on to the House this year but just barely, then lose the House, Senate and White House in 2008. Republicans point out that Democrats also accepted money from Abramoff clients and did favors for him, but even those Republicans acknowledge that when the public thinks both sides are dirty, the party in power is likely to pay the higher price.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois is pushing for an aggressive, if belated, overhaul of travel and lobbying rules–perhaps so far-reaching that it could be challenged in court as an abridgment of free speech, according to House G.O.P. strategists. In what may be the clearest sign that Republicans are feeling their political mortality, Hastert aides revealed at week’s end that the Speaker is pushing Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio to resign from his post as chairman of the Committee on House Administration, which dispenses everything from sofas to BlackBerrys and will handle part of the lobbying-reform package. Ney, identified as “Representative A” in Abramoff’s indictment, is accused of exchanging “official acts” for gifts and contributions from the lobbyist (see box), and Republican leaders said they would not be surprised if he was indicted.

Boehner is challenging Congressman Roy Blunt of Missouri, a maestro of the K Street lobbying community who holds the No. 3 spot in the House, majority whip. Blunt, the son of a state legislator and father of the Show-Me State’s Governor, Matt Blunt, has been acting in the No. 2 job since DeLay temporarily left the post after his indictment in September in a Texas political money-laundering case. If Blunt is chosen to stay on, Republicans will pick a new whip on Feb. 2 as well. Blunt said over the weekend that he had commitments from more than the 117 House members needed to win. Counts in leadership races are notoriously squishy, though, because the ballot is secret and many of the promises are made over the phone.

The battle between Boehner and Blunt got ugly quickly. Blunt allies called Boehner a “joy boy” more concerned about partying than about the party. Boehner allies distributed a Rube Goldberg-like diagram, intentionally drawn to resemble opponents’ depiction of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failed health-care plan, headlined REP. ROY BLUNT’S EFFORTS ON BEHALF OF JACK ABRAMOFF AND HIS INDIAN GAMING CLIENTS.

As backers of the two bickered, a variety of key Republicans began to fret that outraged voters would punish the party if it simply reshuffled a few chairs after being confronted by federal prosecutors with evidence of excess that is adding up to a historic scandal. “A bad political environment could turn into something tsunami size,” said a Republican official close to the White House. That worry inspired the entry late last week of a dark-horse candidate for DeLay’s job, John Shadegg of Arizona, who stuffed envelopes when his father managed Barry Goldwater’s 1952 Senate campaign. “We need a clean break from the scandals of the past,” Shadegg said in his announcement. Within hours, he was endorsed by such key conservative voices as the organization Club for Growth and the publications Human Events and National Review.

House leaders, eager to burnish their image and expecting more ethics horror stories to emerge, are working with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona on proposals to reform lobbying (see box). There is talk of lowering the limit, now $50, on the value of a single gift that a lobbyist can give a lawmaker or aide, provoking jokes about a $49.50 party to cash in before any change takes effect. Hastert is considering supporting a ban on junkets for members and aides that are financed by outside groups and restricting travel to government-paid trips. An aide involved in the negotiations, skeptical that any meaningful change will result, calls the proposals “a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”

Congressional Democrats plan to launch a major attack on Republican ethics this week, with party leaders assembling 100 Democrats from the House and Senate, along with Democratic mayors and Governors, at the Library of Congress to unveil reform legislation intended to set the tone for the election year. The plan calls for a prohibition on gifts, including meals, entertainment and travel, from lobbyists and special interests. Democrats also say they would shut down what they call “pay-to-play schemes,” such as DeLay’s “K Street Project,” which encourages companies and lobbying firms to hire Republicans to improve their access to lawmakers. Even Boehner said in a statement last week, “If I am elected majority leader, there will no longer be a K Street Project or anything like it.”

The House Republicans at the same time are eager to get out a message that could be summed up as “We don’t know Jack.” Members are rushing to disavow any connection to Abramoff or stressing to reporters how little they knew him, and donating money he gave them to charity. When Hastert announced his plans for lobbying reform, Boehner initially suggested that no new rules were needed but quickly reversed course as members of Congress emphasized that he would have to support the reforms to get their votes in the leadership race. Both Boehner and Blunt are getting lots of questions from members about their exact connections to Abramoff and other lobbyists, underscoring that they don’t want to be embarrassed by their new leader having a legal or ethical problem.

Trying to get the vote of one member, Blunt said, “I like to go golfing, but I pay for it myself every single time,” a reference to Abramoff-orchestrated trips DeLay and other lawmakers have taken that have landed them in trouble. Boehner has done the same. “I told John I had two questions,” says LaHood, who is backing Boehner. “Are there going to be any Abramoff scandals or corruption? He told me he had never met Abramoff. And then second, Would Boehner support lobbying and ethics reform? And he said, ‘Absolutely.'”

But Boehner is no babe in the woods. He was one of Newt Gingrich’s closest allies in bringing Republicans to power in 1994. When they took control of the House in 1995 after 40 years of Democratic rule, Boehner, as the House conference chairman, the No. 4 leadership position, was put in charge of building coalitions with business groups. He ran a meeting every Thursday of more than a dozen top business lobbyists in Washington. The relationship was mutually beneficial: House Republicans pushed through pro-business legislation, while the business groups provided campaign cash and grass-roots support to get bills passed. Boehner, who was part of the so-called Gang of Seven that had attacked Democrats for overdrafts from the House bank in the early 1990s, quickly became less known for his reform actions than for his closeness to lobbyists. He famously handed out campaign donations in the form of checks from tobacco lobbyists to members on the floor of the House in 1995. He now says it was a mistake he regrets. Boehner is best known for leading the House push on No Child Left Behind, the program championed by Bush that makes public schools accountable for student performance.

Blunt, former president of Southwest Baptist University, a small school in Missouri, has risen quickly through the leadership ranks since he entered the House in 1997. His close alliance with DeLay helped his ascent, though their relations have frayed in recent years as Blunt started to establish his own power base. As a House leader, he signed a letter, at the request of another member, opposing the construction of a casino in Louisiana that might have competed with a pair of casinos run by two Indian tribes represented by Abramoff. But the lobbyist favor that continues to dog Blunt is much closer to home. In the fall of 2002, Blunt infuriated House Republicans by trying to insert into a Homeland Security bill a provision that would have increased penalties on the sale of stolen cigarettes. The provision was strongly backed by Philip Morris, and Blunt was at the time dating Abigail Perlman, now his wife, who is a lobbyist for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. A Blunt aide denied that the Congressman was working at the direction of lobbyists.

Shadegg has the strongest reform credentials of the three contenders. He entered Congress in the famous class of 1994, which campaigned on a pledge to reform Washington after years of Democratic rule. He once headed the caucus of the House’s most conservative members of Congress and often angered Republican congressional leaders by opposing bills that included pork-barrel projects that would increase the deficit.

Shadegg is not linked to lobbyists as much as the other two candidates, but he lacks the depth of support among colleagues that Blunt and Boehner established long before this race started. In the system that House Republicans have set up, members of Congress rise to leadership positions in part because of their ability to raise campaign cash. Aspiring leaders, who are often so popular in their own districts that they don’t even have opponents, still raise millions of dollars so that they can give the money to others in tough races. They often raise this money through fund raisers organized by major business groups, and many of the donors are lobbyists. The result is that it is difficult to find a member of Congress with the clout and experience to be majority leader who doesn’t have extensive lobbying ties, as do Blunt and Boehner.

One symptom of lobbying run amuck is the proliferation of earmarks–spending placed in legislation, often without public review, for specific projects. “Beating up on lobbyists is easy to do, but we have to put our own house in order, and at the top of that list is earmark reform,” says Republican Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona. The most famous recent earmark was last fall’s so-called Bridge to Nowhere–a provision that Representatives from Alaska inserted into a bill to spend close to $223 million to make it easier to reach a virtually uninhabited area of the state. In the end, the money was cut from the budget in light of public outrage. Lobbyists are paid to land earmarks; Abramoff used them to get money for his tribal clients. The number of those earmarks mushroomed from close to 2,000 in a highway bill in 1998 to more than 6,000 in that bill last year. Practitioners say the boom is a major factor in the doubling of the number of lobbyists in Washington over the past five years, to almost 35,000, and Bush points to the popular practice as one of the reasons curtailing federal spending is so difficult.

All three candidates have suggested that they would support earmark limits, a favorite McCain cause. Only Boehner has been specific about what he would change, saying he would try to prevent federal dollars from going to private entities for exclusively private purposes. This still wouldn’t stop wasteful spending on unneeded bridges and other projects. But one plan would identify the sponsors of earmarks and force members to defend them, eliminating the many mysterious entries that now bristle in the budget. Blunt defends earmarks but has proposed tracking those who request them and how the money is spent. Boehner and Shadegg both say they have never had an earmark directed to their congressional district.

However inviting that pork may be as a rhetorical target, though, earmarks give House members a chance to direct money to particular interests, and it’s unlikely that they will want to give up that power. So in the warrens of the Capitol, Republicans debate how they can project change while keeping things much the same. The big totals on future spreadsheets depend on it.

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