WASHINGTON -- When John Shadegg announced from his hometown of Phoenix on Friday that he is running for House majority leader, it appeared that the two leading candidates to succeed Tom DeLay had peaked. The reason is that Roy Blunt and John Boehner both are regarded as K Street candidates, whose selection might not be prudent for a Republican Party enmeshed in scandal.
Neither Blunt nor Boehner is burdened with DeLay's connection to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Like DeLay, each is closely associated with K Street (the capital's big and brassy lobbyist community). Unlike DeLay, neither is viewed by ardent ideological conservatives as one of their own. So, until Shadegg announced his candidacy, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) were watching a race without a horse to bet on.
While starting well behind the front-runners, Shadegg is a non-K Street reformer. He came to Washington as part of the huge Republican class of '94 that gave the GOP a House majority, and he has not "gone native" since then (in the language of congressional cloakrooms). A former RSC chairman, Shadegg a year ago was elected House Republican Policy Committee chairman (the fifth-ranking party post). In the leadership, Shadegg has remained a supply-side, free market conservative, unique in pressing for deep reforms.
Based on ideological ratings by both left-wing and right-wing organizations, Blunt and Boehner have nearly identical voting records not much different from Shadegg's. The difference pondered by rank-and-file Republican House members is how they will react to the severe threat posed to the party's majority in the current climate of scandal.
As acting majority leader, Blunt has been productive with a much lighter touch than DeLay. Boehner has worked his way back from his defeat for re-election as chairman of the House Republican Conference (the fourth-ranking post) to become an effective chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee. But each has drawbacks.
Blunt has been complicit in the epidemic of earmarks, where Republican lawmakers far exceeded their Democratic predecessors in the amount of special projects inserted in spending bills without authorization or even a hearing. Blunt has been vigorous in obtaining earmarks for his Missouri district and uninterested in restricting the practice. He was among the party leaders who last year privately spanked Rep. Mike Pence, the RSC chairman, for trying to cut back earmarks.
Reflecting the Republican leadership, Blunt has failed to appreciate that the ill effects of earmarking are not limited to more wasteful government pork. Earmarks provided a means for resigned Congressman Duke Cunningham to bypass the regular legislative process in paying off his bribers.
Earmarks constitute one major difference between Boehner and Blunt. Boehner does not use earmarks for his Ohio district and has voted against pork-laden transportation bills. But reformers scarcely consider Boehner a brother.
Members of the lobbying community report that Boehner applies a heavy hand on lobbyists for contributions. According to lobbyist sources, Boehner secured six-figure contributions from business groups for a charity dinner last Sept. 25 that raised $1.1 million for inner city Catholic schools and Hurricane Katrina relief. Such contributions are viewed in the political community as deductible donations to gain favor with a powerful politician. Boehner's staff declined to disclose to this column the names of contributors.
One reason why Boehner lost his leadership post to J.C. Watts after the 1996 election was that he had "gone native" after election as a tough conservative in 1990. He defended weak speakers at the 1996 Republican National Convention by asserting: "We don't have the credibility right now to attack Clinton and Gore." In 1997, he said that "we've got to find some way to compromise" with the Clinton administration, deploring "the days of wedge politics."
Discontent with the Blunt-Boehner choice has reached the point where well-placed sources are talking about Rep. Tom Reynolds, only in his fourth term from New York and House Republican campaign chairman for 2006, being "drafted" for the post. Reynolds is a popular, well-organized politician but does not look like a reformer.
John Shadegg belittles "reform" that diminishes how expensive a lunch can be bought for members of Congress. He wants to prevent future Duke Cunningham scandals by cracking down on earmarks and wants to abolish government pensions for any future Duke Cunninghams. But do Republicans in the House want that?