All in all, last week's House election elevating John Boehner of Ohio to majority leader could have been worse. The GOP caucus could have chosen the front-runner, Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Tom DeLay protege. Instead, after two secret ballots, House Republicans opted for the un-DeLay candidate--sending a message that the party wants to move in a different direction. Say, something akin to the title of an old Barbra Streisand movie: The Way We Were. "When I came in 1994, we were the party of reform, of change, of new ideas, of taking chances," explains House GOP maverick Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, "and not the party of [just] winning." As in DeLay's win-at-all-costs leadership style.
All of this is progress. So is the fact that Boehner has always been anti-pork-barrel. In fact, he's called for strict new limits on the process by which members "earmark" billions of dollars into large spending bills for home-state projects to keep constituents or friendly lobbyists happy. Yet Boehner, who ran as a reformer, is no stranger to the lobbyists' cozy K Street clan: His political action committee raised over $31,000 from the tribal clients of Jack Abramoff, the superlobbyist now singing to the feds in a congressional bribery scandal. And, about a decade ago, he had to apologize for passing out campaign checks from the tobacco lobby on the House floor. Oops. Now, at least, Boehner's talking about lobbying reform.
But here's the problem: He and other Republicans are decidedly cool to some of the reforms that would really make a difference. They are worried that the proposed rules would go overboard in an effort to try to regain the public trust. They don't want to change the way Congress works, because it works just fine for them. So instead of offering a full reform package last week, what does the House do as its first, symbolic legislative act? It votes to ban ex-members who are now lobbyists from the House gym. All of those nefarious deals cut on the treadmills, now gone! All of that planning for junkets whispered between lifting weights, no more! "I've been going to the gym for 24 years, and I've never been lobbied in the gym," ridiculed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. "Of course, I'm pretty ugly naked." Reid may need to keep his towel on; the Senate gym is not affected by the House rule changes.
If this were not true, you could not make it up.
In the immediate Abramoff aftermath, real reform was in the air--with talk of banning corporate-paid travel to boondoggle charity events and lobbyist gifts, which have become a way for members to eat out for free. Yet last week, House Republicans met behind closed doors for more than three hours--and vented about these proposals. Why should they be punished, some asked, when the lobbyists are the bad guys? They're missing the point: While Abramoff may be a convenient villain, the story is not just about lobbyists behaving badly. It is about members behaving badly; it's about some members essentially extorting money from lobbyists who want favors. And since Republicans control Congress, they will get the blame. A sobering thought: The approval rating of congressional Republicans is now lower than the Democrats' rating before they lost power in 1994. And when a recent CBS/ New York Times poll asked which party was "more likely to accept bribes," Republicans won that contest by more than 2 to 1. Not a good sign.