“Being a man given to oratory and high principles, he enjoyed the sound of his own vocabulary and the warmth of his own virtue.”
- Sinclair Lewis, Babbit
The morning headlines Wednesday spoke of change in Washington as if somehow the tsunami that swept through American politics in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president had hit a seawall, and the Republican reaction was now rolling back upon itself to wash Congress in a new ethics cleansing.
By the latest count––and the numbers are still coming in––the midterm elections this year have given Republicans a 239-186 majority in the House of Representatives and reduced Democratic control of the Senate to a 53-47 margin.
The drubbing taken by the Democrats was worse than the 1994 Republican revolution, when Republicans picked up 53 seats in the House and 7 in the Senate. But there is something very murky in how this year’s tidal wave came together––something that just doesn’t feel quite right––that makes me think we are looking at less change in Washington next year, not more.
Reading The Exit Polls
Voter discontent in the current Great Recession cannot be discounted. Exit polls show 86 percent of the people who voted were “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about the direction of the economy in the next year. Fifty-four percent said they feared they or someone in their family would lose a home through foreclosure. Forty-one percent said someone in their household had already lost their job or was laid off in the last two years.
The dire state of the economy dwarfed all other issues. When voters were asked to name their top priority, 62 percent put the economy at the top of their list. Only 8 percent said the war in Afghanistan; only 8 percent named illegal immigration; even the contentious health care debate drew a meager 18 percent.
The midterm election voting divided as expected along party lines. Except this year, Republicans were motivated to turn out against President Obama and Democrats were far less prone to turn out in his support. People who place a high priority on cutting taxes and reducing the deficit voted Republican. (But cutting taxes was the least of their concerns.) People who want more government spending to create jobs voted Democratic. Republicans scored heavily with people who think the stimulus bill has hurt the economy and those who want to repeal the new health law. (But ironically on health care, the number of voters who want to keep or expand the bill outnumber them.)
The Man Who Would be Speaker
As a result of this election, Washington will be filled next year with scores of new faces espousing any number of new ideas for putting America back on track. It is questionable how much of a voice any of these freshmen Republican congressmen will have in a political environment that has shown itself to be impervious to change. Not in question, however, is the emergence of Ohio Rep. John Boehner as the next Speaker of the House and, for the moment, the man who is setting the agenda for the year ahead.
Election Night Promises
On election night, Boehner promised to reject “the spending sprees, the bailouts, the backroom deals, and all that nonsense in Washington.” Among the many items on his agenda is “reforming the way Congress works” – a pledge we heard two years ago from President Obama that, somehow, has a very different meaning in Boehner’s vernacular.
As minority leader of the Republicans this year, Boehner has been a frequent critic of Democratic rules that prohibit floor amendments, don’t give legislators sufficient time to study final legislation, and tack controversial amendments onto essential spending bills so Congress and the President must swallow them for the greater good. Never mind that he employed these same rules when he was majority leader in the Republican-controlled House during the Bush administration, if Boehner follows through on that pledge, it will be a procedural breakthrough that may well create a more democratic (with a small ‘d’) house.
But that kind of reform is not the same reform that President Obama has been trying, unsuccessfully, to address. What Obama wants to reform in Washington is the pernicious influence of special interest money and lobbying on congressional activities. In that regard, Boehner is hardly an ally. He is, in fact, one of the worst offenders.
Chasing The American Dream
On election night, accepting his 11th term as congressman from Cincinnati’s 8th district in suburban Reading, Boehner, 60, grew teary-eyed talking about his life “chasing the American dream.”
The son of a tavern owner, one of 12 children who grew up in a two-bedroom house, Boehner “started out mopping floors, waiting tables and tending bar in his father’s tavern.” He put himself through college “working every rotten job there was and every night shift job I could find.”
He spent six years pursuing a college degree at Xavier University. When he graduated in 1977, he was the first in his family to get a college degree. He took a sales job at a small plastics company called Nucite Sales. He had worked there only a few years before the owner died and he took over the operation.
“I poured my heart and soul into running a small business,” he told the election night audience, but his personal involvement lasted less than five years because he was bitten by the political bug. He became a trustee of his township in 1982 and in 1984 ran for and won a seat in the Ohio state legislature.
From 1984 to the present day, Boehner has regarded himself as a champion of small business. But it is not the free enterprise style small business conservatives champion. It is more like the chamber of commerce model Sinclair Lewis described in his 1922 classic Babbit about small town Ohio businessmen who profited off their civic engagement.
His First Lobbyist/Partner
During his first run for the legislature, for instance, Boehner went to a golf tournament and met Jim Webb, a lobbyist for Armco Steel, the largest employer in the district, who was searching for someone that could champion Armco’s cause in the legislature. “Would you consider supporting me?” Boehner asked. Webb not only supported him, he later told the New York Times, he introduced Boehner to “the right people” and, for more than 20 years, Armco (now AK Steel) and its employees have been among Boehner’s biggest campaign donors.
After a few years in the legislature, Boehner struck an unusual deal with Webb. Webb agreed to run the plastics company, while Boehner remained owner, so Boehner could concentrate on his public affairs. When Boehner moved up to become an Ohio congressman in 1990, they renegotiated the deal to make Webb a partner (and Webb became sole owner in 2003.) By then, Boehner had come a long way from his humble roots. His 1995 congressional ethics statement listed his minimum worth at $2.4 million, although his annual statement in 2009 said it has since dropped to $1.8 million.
A Lobbyist’s Best Friend
In Washington, Boehner is renown for maintaining close ties with the K-street lobbyists. “His inner circle includes lobbyists and former aides representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, R.J. Reynolds, MillerCoors and UPS,” the New York Times reported. This election cycle, he can take personal credit for raising over $36 million from the Chamber of Commerce to support Republican candidates.
Boehner’s Chamber of Commerce approach to small business has come in for some ridicule (notably from the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart) because it includes a love of golf, designer suits, fine wines, luxury accommodations, and a perpetual orange tan that Steward says makes him look like a walking terrorist alert, all paid for by corporate interests or his political action committee (funded by corporate interests).
In the last 18 months, his political action committee has spent $67,000 for accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton Naples in Florida, at least $20,000 at a Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., and $29,000 at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. But it also raised the kind of money that turned this year’s election – and we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars here – into a Republican majority in the House.
Ups and Downs
Since he first came to Congress in 1991, Boehner has hardly been a shrinking flower. He was one of a Gang of Seven Republicans who quickly went after Democrats they believed violated the ethical rules of the House. When Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Boehner got the fourth-ranking leadership role as chairman of the House Republican Conference. He lost that position in 1998 when Republicans cleaned house after a midterm election loss, but wormed his way back into the good graces of House Speaker Dennis Hastert because of his prowess raising campaign cash.
Boehner does not like talking to the media about his ties to the K-street lobbyists. (He refused to participate in two New York Times profile pieces this campaign season.) One reason may be that the most embarrassing incident in his career came in 1996 when he was caught handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to fellow Republicans on the floor of the House. (Boehner, by the way, is a chain-smoking Camel lover.)
The other reason comes more out of the Babbit handbook. We here in America have our own way of dealing with problems, and it requires giving people enough freedom to work out their differences without the government or the media scrutinizing the fine print about whether it’s legal. And if it ain’t, we’ll just change the law or slow the government down to a crawl until we can outspend the Democrats at the next election to get rid of them.
Good luck with that!
And God Bless America.