- - Thursday, October 8, 2015


John Boehner is leaving the House and the speakership with cheers ringing in his ears and maybe with a few regrets, but looking at the chaos in his wake, watching his Republican colleagues struggling to find a suitable successor, he’s entitled to reflect on his own accomplishments. There have been more than a few.

Mr. Boehner first ran for Congress as a reformer, telling the voters of his Ohio district that if they wanted someone to go to Washington to fight for pork they should vote for someone else. He said in that 1990 race, when the earmark outrage was all that Washington was talking about, that he would never ask for one and he would fight to eliminate them. Coupled with wasteful spending, the earmark was a way congressional leaders could buy the votes needed to move their legislation, and to keep their seats secure on Capitol Hill. Once elected, he proved to be that unusual congressman who kept his word.

In fact, he more than kept his word. He never sought an earmark and when he was finally in a position to do more, he did. As the speaker, he led the successful effort to change the House rules to eliminate earmarks and then successfully fought attempts to restore them. He calls his performance on killing earmarks, and keeping them dead, as one of the accomplishments of which he is proudest.

He had every temptation to capitulate to those who yearned to go back to the old way. Earmarks substantially enhance the clout of the leaders in Congress, and particularly the clout of the speaker. Speakers could go to members eager to enact a specific piece of legislation, such as providing federal money for a bridge, or library or a road, and quote the price of an earmark. The speaker would attach the member’s earmark to legislation the member might otherwise vote against and thus secure his support. It was a sloppy, corrupt and expensive way to do business, but it worked. By not doing it that way, Mr. Boehner made his job harder.

Joni Ernst, the freshman Republican senator from Iowa who campaigned as someone with experience in castrating hogs and thus knew how to cut pork, was a beneficiary of Mr. Boehner’s war on earmarks. Her 2014 Senate race, against Rep. Bruce Braley, a great friend of the tort lawyers, was one of the most expensive in the country. Both Ms. Ernst and Mr. Braley found themselves constantly on the hunt for more money.

The retiring Democratic senator, Tom Harkin, was sitting on $2 million in his campaign kitty. Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats, wanted that money for the Braley campaign. Mr. Harkin was a loyal Democrat but even more loyal to his own interests, and he wanted to use that money to build a “Harkin library” to make sure everybody in Iowa remembered him. The ban on earmarks made it impossible to raid the treasury for the money to build his library, so he would have to preserve his campaign account for the library. Bad news for Bruce Braley, but good news for Joni Ernst.

Once upon a time conservative activists wouldn’t consider a candidate who favored earmarks; dozens of Republican candidates for the House and Senate railed against them. Such voices are stilled today, and John Boehner suffers the reality of short memories and from the home truth that it’s “what have you done for me lately” that drives politics.

Before the door closes on him as he leaves Congress, there’s one last thing he can do for his country and the institution he loves. He should use his considerable powers of persuasion to secure a commitment from whoever succeeds him to protect his ban on earmarks. This was his fight and it must be the fight of his successor.

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