House Leadership Candidates Also Have Lobbyist Ties

House Republicans want to move past the setback suffered when their majority leader, Tom DeLay, was indicted. But the two leading candidates to replace DeLay, Roy Blunt (R-MO) and John Boehner (R-OH), have close ties to lobbyists.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Republicans are working to move past the evidence of corruption in Congress. After a lobbyist pleaded guilty, Republicans are preparing lobbying reform legislation. They're also preparing to choose a new majority leader after Tom DeLay stepped aside.

INSKEEP: The trouble is the two main candidates to replace DeLay have some of the deepest ties to lobbyists of anyone in Congress. In a moment, we'll hear more about the Republican project to make lobbyists an arm of their party. We start with NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

The two main candidates for majority leader are Missouri's Roy Blunt, the current Republican whip and acting leader, and Ohio's John Boehner, a chairman and former member of the party leadership. But if rank-and-file Republicans are looking for a squeaky-clean leader when it comes to lobbying, they're bound to be disappointed, says Fred Wertheimer, founder of money-in-politics watchdog Democracy 21.

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (Democracy 21): Both of these candidates are deeply connected to the lobbying community, and I don't think they will try to publicly argue otherwise.

SEABROOK: First, take Boehner. When he was in the House leadership under Speaker Newt Gingrich, Boehner was the Republicans' liaison between the lobbying community and the party. In that time, he built strong ties with big corporate lobbyists and continues to maintain them. Wertheimer says Boehner made especially strong ties with tobacco lobbyists.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: And, in fact, had one major incident when he was passing out campaign contribution checks from tobacco lobbyists on the floor of the House of Representatives.

SEABROOK: Now as chairman of the Labor, Education and Workforce Committee, one of the biggest contributors to Boehner's political action committee is the private moneylender Sallie Mae, or SLM Corporation. Some say this appears to be a conflict of interest since Boehner's committee writes student loan laws, and Sallie Mae makes millions of dollars providing private student loans.

And what about Blunt and his relationship to lobbyists?

Representative RAY LaHOOD (Republican, Illinois): Well, he's married to one, and I think that's a problem.

SEABROOK: That's Republican Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois. He's speaking of Blunt's wife, Abigail Perlman, a lobbyist for Altria Group Inc., formerly known as cigarette giant Philip Morris. That company is the all-time biggest contributor to Blunt's political campaigns and committees. And in 2002, Blunt, or someone in his office, tried to surreptitiously insert a provision into a homeland security bill that would have protected tobacco companies from online cigarette sales. LaHood says this is a problem.

Rep. LaHOOD: I think his close association and his wife's involvement in the lobbying community has caused worrisome problems in the past, and I think it'll probably hurt him in this race.

SEABROOK: LaHood has announced he'll support Boehner. But South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson has worked closely with Blunt and says his work is on the up and up. For instance, Wilson says, Blunt doesn't do the kind of painful arm-twisting that Tom DeLay practiced when he was whip, and, Wilson says, when it comes to lobbyists, Blunt hasn't done anything other members of Congress haven't done.

Representative JOE WILSON (Republican, South Carolina): Having ties to lobbyists I don't think is a negative. In general, lobbyists are very honest and capable people. So I think the key point is: Is the lobbyist honest or not?

SEABROOK: But that could work against Blunt, as well. In the past, he took thousands of dollars from now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Blunt recently announced he'll donate an equal amount to charity.

Money-in-politics watchdog Wertheimer says Blunt's and Boehner's connections to lobbyists reveal much about the way Congress is run these days.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: This reflects the fact that in recent years, there has been a direct interconnection between the Washington lobbying community and the House Republican leadership.

SEABROOK: And by the looks of it, that might not change if Blunt and Boehner are the only two candidates for majority leader. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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