Boehner Must Master Balancing Act

This now-celebrated description of Rep. John Boehner (R.-Ohio) ran in the New York Times the morning after his surprise election as majority leader: "Easygoing and well-liked, with a perpetual tan, a low golf handicap and an ever-present Barclay cigarette between his fingertips, Mr. Boehner, 56, looks like a throwback to the 1950s Dean Martin comes to Congress."

House Republicans had just met behind closed doors to replace Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.), forced to step down following his indictment on alleged Texas campaign-finance-law violations. In a second-ballot vote of 122 to 109, the GOP opted for Boehner over Missouri’s Roy Blunt, the House Republican whip who had been acting leader since DeLay stepped down. In choosing Boehner, Republicans went for someone who had been sacked as House GOP Conference chairman in 1998.

This was the first time since Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford ousted House Minority Leader Charles Halleck (Ind.) in 1965 that hierarchically minded House Republicans had turned out one of their top two leaders in favor of a professed reformer.

Or did they really?

It is a reach to call the eight-term Boehner a "reformer." As chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, he worked closely with President Bush in 2001 to secure passage of the No Child Left Behind Act — which massively increased the federal role and federal spending in education.

Amid revelations about questionable relationships between convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several Republican members, Boehner supporters pointed out that their man first achieved national attention in 1991 as one of the "Gang of Seven." These were the Republicans in the class of 1990 who demanded the names of all 355 lawmakers who had overdrafts at the House Bank and attacked both Democratic and Republican leaders for orchestrating an unpopular pay raise, and for not dealing with the House Post Office scandal. The tenacity of the "Gang of Seven" led to the closing of the House Bank, reform of the Post Office and a post-World-War-II high in retirements from the House in 1992.

Many Lobbyist Friends

Boehner’s opponents countered that that was 15 years ago. His more recent activities, they said, suggest a cozy relationship with lobbyists. Where House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) has called for an outright ban on all outside-funded travel for lawmakers, Boehner supports only full disclosure of who’s paying for congressmen’s trips. He makes no bones about his friendships with business lobbyists, a group of whom he accompanies on an annual Caribbean sailing trip. As he told the Washington Post, "Do I have K Street friends? Yes I do. Do I have relationships with them? Yes. And every one of them is an ethical relationship."

Even on the issue of earmarks, Boehner is no purist. During the majority leader’s race, he proudly said he had never engaged in earmarking and had voted against the earmark-packed Highway Bill last summer, which Blunt supported. But Boehner does not support eliminating earmarking, calling only for full disclosure.

So how conservative is he?

Because he was a small businessman, Boehner has been called a "Chamber of Commerce conservative," a description he embraces. But he also insists he is a strong social conservative. One of 12 children from a Catholic family, he cites the late Pope John Paul II as inspiration for his pro-life voting record. In 2004, he supported the federal marriage amendment in Congress and campaigned for Ohio’s successful statewide marriage amendment. He also opposes giving U.S. tax dollars to UNFPA, which is connected to China’s family planning program that utilizes coercive abortion.

Following service in the Navy and graduation from Xavier University at age 28, Boehner started a successful plastics packaging company. In 1984, he was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. Six years later, when then-Rep. Donald (Buz) Lukens (R.-Ohio) was caught in a sex scandal, Boehner won the Republican primary in Ohio’s 8th U.S. House District, defeating both Lukens and former Rep. Tom Kindness.

Rated 100% by Americans for Tax Reform and B+ (70%) by the National Taxpayers Union, Boehner has a good record on taxes. He has not been as good on the spending side. In 2004, for example, he opposed a 1% across-the-board cut in the Transportation-Treasury Appropriation and a $1.4 billion cut in the Labor-HHS Education Appropriation.

He also supports President Bush’s guest-worker/amnesty plan for illegal aliens.

As Republicans face a tough mid-term election, Boehner’s ability as a leader will be tested by the conflicts that are sure to arise between the White House and conservative lawmakers who strongly oppose the administration on spending and immigration issues.