Monday, February 06, 2006

Boehner: Ix-Nay on That Eform-Ray!
Strictly from a political standpoint, I'm disappointed that the House Republican majority chose Ohio Rep. John Boehner to succeed Tom DeLay as majority leader, rather than Missouri's Roy Blunt. A man who left his wife of 30 years to dally with a tobacco lobbyist, whom he later married, Blunt's standing as a Republican literally in bed with Big Tobacco would have been a Democratic admaker's shimmery dream brought to life.

From a policy standpoint, though, I guess Boehner's about as good as we could hope from this collection of miscreants, troglodytes and fanatics. He's generally been a solid vote for greater resources and more flexible programming on federal workforce development and job training policy, my area of professional focus, and the (otherwise despicable) Rep. Peter King of Long Island pointed out last week that as an Ohioan, Boehner might generally be better disposed toward urban and economic issues than DeLay was or Blunt would have been.

But the reason the caucus chose him rather than Blunt pretty clearly was their fear of Abramoff-related voter rage this November, and their wish to present a different face to the country. In that sense, while Boehner might come across as less blatantly evil than dead-eyed DeLay or the baleful Blunt, he's sending signals that on the meat, he won't be very much different:

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has begun shifting his party toward an alternative lobbying reform package that stresses disclosure of lobbying contacts rather than the virtual ban on gifts and privately funded trips proposed last month by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

In an interview yesterday, Boehner emphasized that he has no plan to change lobbying rules and will not draft one until he can reach a broad consensus with House Republicans, possibly at a retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore next week. But he was quick to say the proposals that Hastert and House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) put forward are not the Republican Conference's plan.
...Boehner will emphasize the immediate disclosure of contacts between lobbyists and lawmakers, allowing the voting public to decide whether those contacts are proper. And he will tackle what many Republicans see as the root of the lobbying problem -- the ease with which lawmakers can dole out millions of dollars in favors through pet provisions in spending bills.

Boehner said he endorsed only "in concept" a bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would make every such provision -- or "earmark" -- subject to challenge on the House or Senate floor.
[H]e added, "members need to understand what's happening in the world. They need to understand what's happening with industry. That won't happen if they're locked up in a cubbyhole here in the Capitol."

Boehner called for the disclosure of any meal or gift from a lobbyist within 24 hours, both by the lawmaker and the lobbyist.

"If you can't go out and justify a $60 meal and see it in the press, then maybe you shouldn't go," he said. "But if you can, go ahead and do it, and let the world see what that relationship was. I think that's a far smarter way to go about this."

Maybe it's me, but this sounds like Boehner wants to incorporate the principle of "Don't ask permission; beg forgiveness" into law. No congressman is going to be deterred from shady doings by the prospect of disclosure; public shame doesn't work in the Age of Rove.

Consider: someone like Josh Marshall could rail all day about how Congressman Mephisto (R-TX) disclosed on a government website that OmniMegaCorp, where his wife works as a $400,000-a-year press flack, has paid for every bite of food he's eaten since 1983, and link to a Common Cause study that found that the distinguished gentleman has slipped clauses into legislation that have fatted Omni's bottom line by tens of millions. But will Mephisto's constituents even hear about it? Not likely; local media may or may not seize upon the story, and will make that decision--which you need to actuate the whole "shame" concept--based on factors beyond anyone's control. Perhaps if his opponent has sufficient resources, s/he will run a few campaign ads. But given that he's probably in a gerrymandered district, it won't be easy to raise the money to start with; donors like to support candidates with a legit shot to win.

And even if the word does get out, it's still far from assured that consequences will ensue. Inevitably, Mephisto's critics will be smeared as partisans, and a Scaife-funded think tank will produce another study proving the Congressman's direct lineage from Charlemagne.

If we believe the behavior in question--in this case, over-fraternization of public servants with lobbyists--either materially worsens public policy or erodes the public's trust in their elected officials, we should ban it. A cynical call for mere "disclosure," knowing that such information very likely will no more register than the proverbial fart in a windstorm, does nothing to reform the system.

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