In years past, when the House has recessed for its winter break, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has decamped for warmer climates and a sailing trip to the Caribbean with some of the city's top lobbyists, including Henry Gandy of the well-connected Duberstein Group and Timothy McKone of SBC Communications.
Over the summer, they discussed a trip for this year as well, Boehner said yesterday, but last week the lobbyists weighed anchor without him, content to communicate by telephone while the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee rushed to Washington for a high-stakes run to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as House majority leader.
The annual vacation, dubbed a "boys' trip" by detractors, points to an issue underlying the current House leadership race: Both Boehner and his rival for majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), have extensive ties to the same K Street lobbying world that stained DeLay's reputation and spawned the Abramoff corruption scandal.
"Do I have K Street friends? Yes, I do," Boehner said. "Do I have relationships with them? Yes. And every one of them is an ethical relationship."
In another year, that answer might have sufficed, given how many lawmakers maintain such cordial ties. But with all of Congress anxiously awaiting the testimony of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his partner, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, the atmosphere has changed.
The concern over lobbying "is palpable," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a candidate for the House GOP's number three spot of majority whip who yesterday unveiled a broad proposal to change congressional lobbying rules. "This has become a matter of public trust."
Both camps this week have been pointing to the other's well-documented connections and activities, some of which are the stuff of legends. They include Blunt's failed effort to insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the massive bill creating the Department of Homeland Security and Boehner's distribution of checks from tobacco concerns in 1995 to lawmakers on the House floor. Also of note are both men's prodigious fundraising activities, some of which involve individuals and clients with ties to Abramoff.
‘One of the defining issues’
Lobbying activity has become "one of the defining issues in the race so far," conceded Blunt spokeswoman Burson Taylor.
Some members, such as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), have said the two candidates' ties to K Street are so extensive that the race still could draw in a third candidate, such as Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) or House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Even some of the candidates' supporters concede victory could hinge on which man can show he can move away from his past.
"It's a concern to both me personally and the [Republican] conference," said Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who is supporting Boehner. "Ties to lobbyists have been around since Teapot Dome and the Gilded Age. The question is, the Abramoff stuff specifically were never considerations when we voted on the current leadership team. We have to have a broad reassessment now."
"We will want people who are clean running the House," said Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), a Boehner supporter.
The stories are numerous. Just hours after Blunt was named to the House's third-highest leadership job in 2002, he unsuccessfully tried to insert a measure benefiting Philip Morris into the 475-page bill creating the Department of Homeland Security. Blunt's ties to the company are thick: He was very close to a company lobbyist, Abigail Perlman, at the time, and married her in 2003. She does not lobby Congress. One of his sons, Andrew B. Blunt, lobbies the Missouri legislature for Philip Morris.
Blunt has intervened in legislation on behalf of United Parcel Service of America Inc. and Federal Express Corp. Andrew Blunt represented UPS in Missouri at the time. And the senior Blunt brokered a deal with Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) to fight for a vote on legislation that could open the door to Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco, a top priority of Philip Morris, because it is far ahead of rivals in designing products likely to gain FDA support.
Boehner's most famous act of the sort also involved the tobacco industry: In 1995, he distributed checks from tobacco political action committees to members on the House floor.
And both men have established a web of lobbying connections that touch Abramoff's fundraising and lobbying machine. Blunt, who modeled his political career on DeLay's, has extensive ties to the Washington lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group, which announced this week it has been so hobbled by its association with Abramoff that it is closing. Blunt, whose name appears as a "Friend of Owner" on a list Abramoff maintained of lawmakers who could dine at his restaurant for free, announced this month that he would donate $8,500 to charity that Abramoff and his wife had donated to his political action committee.
Boehner's political action committee has received $31,500 from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff, money Boehner strenuously maintains should in no way be connected to the lobbyist.
"I've never taken an Abramoff dollar," he said.
Spokesman Don Seymour added that Boehner "doesn't think Native American tribal groups should be dishonored simply for exercising their own political freedom."
And like Blunt, Boehner has been known to accept the largess of companies with ties to his legislative agenda. The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland reported that in 2004, a lobbyist for student loan giant Sallie Mae, one of the biggest companies affected by the Education Committee, hosted a fundraising dinner for his leadership PAC, where a majority of the company's top executives wrote checks for the event.
Indeed, since 1999, Sallie Mae executives have contributed at least $123,470 to the PAC, called the Freedom Project, Federal Election Commission reports show.
Gandy and another sometime sailing partner, Bruce Gates of Washington Council Ernst and Young, also sponsor what have become known as Boehner warehouse parties, lavish, expensive fundraising affairs that started at the 1996 Republican National Convention and can last until dawn.
Both Blunt and Boehner have tried hard to shore up their images in the wake of such stories.
"One of the points that Congressman Blunt has proactively been making in conversations with colleagues and made in his formal Dear Colleague letter is the need for lobbying reform," Taylor said. "He's pledging to move swiftly after Congress returns."
Boehner has highlighted his actions in the early 1990s to clean up the House's internal bank, post office and restaurant system, and he, too, wants change to lobbying rules, especially more disclosure of lobbying contacts with lawmakers.
"Nobody knows more about reforming this place than I do," he said.