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The Crying Shame of John Boehner

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The irony is, no one — no one — represents all of these bile-inspiring qualities better than John Boehner. His most striking achievement is that there's a check mark next to his name on virtually every entry on the list of common public complaints about Congress. And yet, when the Republicans rolled back into the control of the House this past November on the strength of a nationwide Throw-the-Bums-Out movement, it was Boehner, the prototypical bum, who somehow clambered onto the congressional throne. It's hard to imagine that in all of American political history there has been a more unlikely marriage than John Boehner and the pitchfork-wielding, incumbent-eating Tea Party, whose blood ostensibly boils at the thought of business as usual. Because John Boehner is business as usual, a man devoted almost exclusively to ensuring his own political survival by tending faithfully to the corrupt and clanking Beltway machinery. How? Let us count the ways.

From the very start, Boehner's career has been a heartwarming tribute to the gentle spirituality and tender human connections that surround the experience of congressional service. Here's how he got into the House in the first place: His predecessor, a white Republican named Donald "Buz" Lukens, got caught on camera talking with a black woman at a McDonald's in Columbus, Ohio, about how he had slept with her teenage daughter. It came out later that Lukens, his negotiating skills honed by years of public service, had paid 40 bucks to the girl to have sex with him in his Columbus apartment.

Convicted of "contributing to the unruliness of a minor," old Buz refused to resign his seat, and so John Boehner, a young plastics salesman (plastics!), took him on in the primary and won on a platform of restoring morals and ethics to the Congress. Boehner then joined up with a group of other freshmen congressmen, including God-humping Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum, and formed the so-called Gang of Seven. The group made names for themselves by giving sanctimonious speeches blasting Democratic congressional leaders for things like getting free haircuts at the House barbershop and free meals at the Senate restaurant. Shortly thereafter, Boehner ascended to a leadership role himself after helping co-author the "Contract With America," and it wasn't long before the man who swept into office in the shiny red underpants of an ethical crusader was creating his own peculiar ethics record.

Forget about free haircuts: Boehner was soon caught literally handing out checks from the tobacco lobby on the floor of the House. This was 1995; the House was voting to consider an end to federal subsidies of the tobacco industry, and Boehner, at the time the fourth-ranking Republican in the party hierarchy, went on the floor and handed out, by his own admission, "a half-dozen" donation checks from the tobacco lobby to various members.

Boehner only got busted when former-football-star-turned-GOP-congressman Steve Largent got wind of the check-passing and confronted Boehner about it. The fallout from the incident reveals the future House speaker at his absolute finest: While being interviewed by a television reporter about what he had done, Boehner with a straight face tries to turn the tables and present himself as an opponent of the practice.

"It's a practice that's gone on here for a long time that we're trying to stop, and I know that I'll never do it again," he deadpans. Asked how he feels about the episode, he says, "It's a bad practice. We've gotta stop it." While he may have stopped handing out checks on the floor of the House, Boehner didn't stop taking in lobbyist money and doing favors for his favorite industries. If you go back over his record, you'll find one instance after another of Boehner standing up on this or that issue in a way that dovetails perfectly with a pile of money that happens to have been sent to his PAC or his campaign fund from the industry that stood to benefit from his position. For years, Boehner was one of the largest recipients of campaign donations from UPS; by an amazing coincidence, he was also the sponsor of a bill that would have allowed companies that pay into group pension plans — like UPS — to cut pension benefits for their own employees if another employer in the group went out of business. In another curious connection between campaign funding and political favors, Boehner received hundreds of thousands of dollars from for-profit colleges and the private-student-loan industry — and then sponsored laws that restricted the Department of Education from making less expensive government loans to students, pushing for federal subsidies for private colleges and trade schools.

In the Nineties, Boehner started weekly meetings with a group of lobbyists, originally known as "The Thursday Group," that helped him develop close ties to companies like Citigroup, MillerCoors, UPS, Goldman Sachs, Google and R.J. Reynolds. And what does Boehner do with these lobbyists? Well, one thing we know he does is play golf — shitloads and shitloads of golf, which he apparently likes a lot more than, well, working. "Lazy" is how one former congressional aide describes Boehner's work ethic. "Not the hardest worker," said Joe Scarborough, former congressman and current MSNBC host. Congressional sources say that Boehner likes to knock off early, and that seems to square with his record, which reveals a real passion — for the links. He once went on 180 junkets in six years, most of them golf trips, and reportedly copped to playing 100 rounds a year at a time when he was collecting a six-figure salary, paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, to serve in Congress. His political action committee spent almost $83,000 on golf events in 2009, and over the past 18 months he has run up a $67,000 tab at the Ritz-Carlton golf resort in Naples, Florida. He flew on a corporate jet 45 times between 2000 and 2007, and took at least 41 other corporate-sponsored trips in the past decade.

When he wasn't playing golf on some lobbyist's tab, Boehner was often sleeping in an apartment rented to him by industry pals; for years he lived in a posh two-bedroom apartment owned by John Milne, a Beltway lobbyist who represents health-insurance companies and restaurant chains, two industries with keen interest in the work of the House Education and Workforce Committee chaired by Boehner.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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