John Boehner, A Profile in Corporatism

To: Progressive Allies
From: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way
Re: John Boehner, A Profile in Corporatism
Date: November 4, 2010

The GOP’s dramatic gains in Tuesday’s midterm election have positioned John Boehner as the presumptive Speaker of the House in the 112th Congress. In his twenty years in Congress, Boehner has been one of the fiercest protectors of Corporate America, and his political and legislative history provide a striking road map for what to expect from his tenure as Speaker.

Following stints in local politics and service in the Ohio State House, John Boehner was elected to the United States Congress in 1990.  In his second term in Congress, Boehner helped write the Contract with America and became a stalwart ally of Newt Gingrich, even his “protégé.”  Boehner backed Gingrich’s partisan and confrontational style of leadership, and Gingrich elevated him to the position of GOP Conference Chairman.  From there, Boehner became the go-to Member of Congress for corporate lobbyists and business interests.

As Conference Chairman, Boehner “met weekly with leading lobbyists to enlist their support and discuss strategy” throughout his four year tenure.  During a vote to remove a subsidy to the tobacco industry, Boehner personally handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists and industry PACs to other congressmen on the House floor.  At least one Republican colleague, Rep. Linda Smith, blasted Boehner’s actions, saying that “if it is not illegal, it should be.”  Since his role in the Republican leadership was closely tied to Gingrich, when Gingrich resigned following the GOP’s 1998 election loss, Boehner was voted out of his leadership position.

After he was forced out of his role as Conference Chairman, Boehner embarked on a plan to regain support among his Republican colleagues.  His leadership PAC, called the “Freedom Project,” took in millions of dollars from special-interest lobbyists, and he then used the money to contribute to his fellow Republican candidates.  Top contributors include Sallie Mae, Merrill Lynch, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Cincinnati Financial Corp., which helped make Boehner’s leadership PAC one of the best-funded among his peers.  The “major sources of financing” for the Freedom Project came from “for-profit colleges and trade schools, and private student lenders,” and as chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Boehner sponsored “legislation strongly supported by private student lenders to restrict the ability of the U.S. Department of Education to make government student loans less expensive by cutting fees.”  Boehner told representatives from student loan companies that he has “tricks up my sleeve to protect you,” and he later helped pass a law to bar individuals from refinancing their student loans.

According to Boehner, “I have a good relationship to K Street and people who lobby us.” 

Even Boehner’s landlord is a lobbyist, and the Washington Post writes that his landlord’s “clients —   including restaurant chains and health insurance companies — hired him to lobby on issues at the heart of Boehner's work, including minimum-wage increases, small-business tax breaks and tax-free savings accounts to help cover insurance costs.”

In addition to building relationships with corporate lobbyists, Boehner enhanced his standing with the Religious Right.  In 2002 Boehner wrote a letter to the Ohio Board of Education urging them to teach intelligent design in public schools, using language derived from anti-evolution activist Phillip E. Johnson.  Cyrus B. Richardson Jr., the school board vice president, called Boehner’s letter “misleading” because “it makes it sound like the law says you have to teach intelligent design, when that isn’t in the law.”

He has consistently stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Religious Right throughout his time in Congress.  Boehner voted to ban same-sex couples from adopting children and to repeal domestic partnership laws, he opposed hate crimes laws and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he supported Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.  On issues regarding reproductive justice, Boehner voted against protecting reproductive health clinics and backed laws which would compel women to go through biased counseling before terminating their pregnancy.  In his speech to the Family Research Council’s 2009 Values Voter Summit, Boehner emphasized his steadfast, 100% anti-choice record.

Following Tom DeLay’s resignation as Majority Leader in 2006 after DeLay was indicted on conspiracy charges, John Boehner returned to the GOP leadership and was elected to replace DeLay.  From the outset, Boehner pledged to support Republican plans to privatize Social Security, worked against a bipartisan immigration reform bill, and vigorously fought stronger ethics laws.  Once elevated to Majority Leader, his leadership PAC received even more financial support from special interest groups.  The New York Times found that “Mr. Boehner’s biggest donors include the political action committees of lobbying firms, drug and cigarette makers, banks, health insurers, oil companies and military contractors.”  Boehner’s PAC also received $32,000 from casino-owning American Indian tribes with ties to convicted felon Jack Abramoff.

Boehner only deepened his ties to special interest lobbyists and intensified his pro-corporate agenda after the 2006 elections, when Republicans lost their majority and he became Minority Leader.  Like the Freedom Project, the “Boehner for Speaker” committee allowed lobbyists to buy significant access to the congressman.  Lobbyists were allowed “VIP access” to Boehner and his top aides if they could raise $100,000 worth of contributions or more for the committee.  But Boehner’s ties to lobbyists don’t end there: he routinely met with business leaders, particularly from the banking and tobacco industries, at his Thursday Group meetings, spent tens of thousands of dollars “to travel to golf destinations on a corporate-subsidized tab,” and gave business associations a larger platform through his America Speaking Out initiative.  In September, the New York Times profiled his close ties with K Street:

He maintains especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists and former aides representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R. J. Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS.

They have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns, provided him with rides on their corporate jets, socialized with him at luxury golf resorts and waterfront bashes and are now leading fund-raising efforts for his Boehner for Speaker campaign, which is soliciting checks of up to $37,800 each, the maximum allowed.

Some of the lobbyists readily acknowledge routinely seeking his office’s help — calling the congressman and his aides as often as several times a week — to advance their agenda in Washington. And in many cases, Mr. Boehner has helped them out.

Special interest groups continue to pay handsomely to gain access to Boehner and his aides.  This year Boehner raised well over $7 million and, Fredreka Schouten of USA Today writes, the “industries giving the most to Boehner” include “insurance companies, drug manufacturers and Wall Street firms, all of which now face new regulations adopted by the Democratic-controlled Congress.”  In all, the financial and insurance industries have been his top donors, contributing $3.8 million to his political committees.

Boehner’s connections to corporate lobbyists and trade associations greatly influenced his political work.  He is big business’s chief advocate on the Hill, and his efforts include “combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge fund executives and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.”  Reacting to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Boehner agreed with the US Chamber of Commerce that taxpayers should subsidize the cleanup, rather than forcing BP to pay for the entire bill.  Boehner has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil companies, and fought attempts by Democrats to lift the liability cap in order to make BP pay for the entire cost of the cleanup.

Boehner vehemently opposes greater supervision of the financial industry and worked tirelessly against Wall Street reform, comparing new oversight and regulations to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.”  When speaking to an “enthusiastic crowd of bankers at the American Bankers Association government relations summit,” Boehner told them to fight regulatory reform and not “to let those little punk staffers take advantage of you.”  Before the historic financial reform bill came up for a vote, Boehner “met with more than 100 lobbyists” to strategize their opposition, and after the legislation was signed into law, he immediately called for its repeal.

But while Boehner looks after his friends and campaign contributors on K Street and Wall Street, he voted against recent legislation to increase lending and tax relief for small businesses, voted ‘No’ on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, attempted to stop extending benefits to unemployed Americans, and vigorously opposed a proposal to bolster and ensure government funding for the medical treatment of 9/11 rescue workers.  He also led the opposition to the DISCLOSE Act, which would have made corporations publicly disclose their political contributions and prevent foreign corporations from spending in US elections. 

An unapologetic beneficiary of corporate money and an unwavering ally of K Street, John Boehner consistently supports the interests of big business over the public interest. Corporations and their lobbyists are largely responsible for financing his political operations, crafting his policy proposals, and lifting his political career and ambitions.  Not only has John Boehner embraced Wall Street and K Street, but he also worked hard to shore up his support from the Religious Right and other conservative interest groups.  As the next Speaker of the House, John Boehner will have even more power to advance the goals of Washington lobbyists and push his right-wing, pro-corporate agenda.

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