House Majority Leader Defends GOP Policies
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JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with House Majority Leader John Boehner, Republican of Ohio. He replaced Tom DeLay as leader in February.
Mr. Leader, welcome.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Jim, it’s good to be here.
JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say the Republican Congress is now establishing its independence from President Bush right now?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Oh, I don’t think so. I think we have our disagreements but that doesn’t mean that we don’t think the world of the president. I think, frankly, America ought to be very happy and proud to have President Bush in office. Just think about what this man has dealt with over the last five years, whether it be the attack of 9/11, the recession we were already in, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, the largest natural disaster to ever hit the United States. And we’ve had someone who’s got courage, he’s able to lead, and, most importantly, willing to lead.
JIM LEHRER: But he said to you all, you Republican members of the Congress of the United States, on the Dubai ports deal, he said, “It’s not a security problem. Trust me.” And, overwhelmingly, your colleagues said, “Forget it, Mr. President,” and you voted against him and were about to do it even in a strong way. What happened?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, like any relationship, it’s not going to be a honeymoon every day. And the fact is, is that the Congress had a constitutional role to play. Our constituents and members of Congress as well are concerned about the security of our ports. And many people saw this process, this Siphius [ph] process as flawed. And so the Congress decided to speak. But just because we’re going to speak in opposition to what he’s for doesn’t mean we don’t think the world of the president and the fact is he’s the leader of our party and someone that I’m proud to call my friend and the president.
JIM LEHRER: He’s the leader of your party and all those other things you just said, but he is also at an all-time low in the public opinion polls. You’re not suggesting that that doesn’t have something to do with the attitudes of members of Congress, are you?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: No, I don’t think his rating has anything to do with it. The fact is, is that we have a disagreement over this particular issue. But there are a lot of other issues where we have strong agreement. I mean, I worked closely with him to write No Child Left Behind. We’re partners in this process, but he’s the leader of the executive branch. We’re leader of the — we’re the leaders of the legislative branch. And under the Constitution we have different roles that we play. And I think that’s what you’re seeing playing out here. And a little tension, a little tension in this relationship is not necessarily a bad thing.
JIM LEHRER: But isn’t it fair to say, Congressman, that the tension didn’t really start to develop until his polls started going down? When he was popular with everybody around the country and his approval rating was way up there, he had a lot easier row to hoe, did he not?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: He had a lot more political capital to play with us.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Okay. But the fact is, is that this is an issue that the American people are worried about. You know, we know that border security is an important issue. The problem in our ports is being addressed but not as quickly as we’d all like. And many people saw this Dubai ports arrangement as just two plus two equaled three and said, no, we’re not going to have any part of this.
JIM LEHRER: You’re a man of politics. What is your analysis of why the president is doing so poorly right now with the public?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think the big issue right now is the fact that we’re at war. And the war has gone on, it hasn’t gone as well as we’d all like it to go, the war in Iraq. And when we’re — when our country is at war, people just feel nervous. And I think that that’s what is driving his numbers to where they are.
JIM LEHRER: And do you think he can do anything about it as long as the war continues to go poorly?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think that helping bring about democracy in a part of the world that’s never known one is the most important gift that we could ever leave for our kids and theirs. Our fathers fought in World War II, the great war. And if they had not done what they did and if they had not won the war, who knows what our future would have been like? And we went to Iraq for the right reasons. We’re there for the right reasons. It has been a difficult fight but when you look down the road ten, twenty, thirty years, it really will be a wonderful gift for our kids and theirs to have a more stable and peaceful Middle East.
JIM LEHRER: Today, a Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today came out and said 57 percent of the American people, at least those polled, thought the war was a mistake to begin with.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: It’s been a difficult fight. And the insurgents and the terrorists, they’re going to do everything they can to try to stop this democracy from getting off the ground. But at the end of the day there’s an awful lot of peace around Iraq, not necessarily in Baghdad and a few other hot spots. But there’s an awful lot of success there. We’re doing the right thing. We have to go see this through and make sure that we help them succeed in their effort to become a free republic.
JIM LEHRER: Your district in Cincinnati, does that polling number pretty well reflect what they’re telling you as well about Iraq?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, there’s some discomfort amongst my constituents like there is everywhere else. No one wants to see America’s boys and girls fighting in a foreign land. That’s a very big challenge that you’re pushing on to the country. But we’re doing it for the right reasons and I’m glad that the president has chosen to take this fight there. I think the other thing you have to remember is that if we weren’t fighting the terrorists there, we’d be fighting them here. And that is an issue that gets lost on a lot of people but it is, in fact, in my view the truth.
JIM LEHRER: Are you concerned at all, whatever the truth is and however — what you see the situation to be and the president sees the situation to be, that this is going to be a drag on all Republican candidates in the 2006 congressional elections?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think it’s too early to tell.
JIM LEHRER: Too early?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: We’re hopeful that the training that we’re engaged in helping to bring the Iraqi army and police force in a more unified way, in a way where they can protect their people, it continues to go well. Can it go well enough where we begin to bring our boys and girls home or begin to bring them home? I think it’s too early to tell.
JIM LEHRER: As the leader of the Republicans in the House, are you prepared to say to a colleague who comes to you and says, “Hey, look, the president is just very unpopular in my district. I’m not in a position to publicly endorse and embrace him like I’ve been up until now,” to give that person a free pass in order to win?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: No.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think that is a very big political mistake. When you look at polling over — let’s go back over the last 20 years, the president’s party and the president’s numbers track very closely together. And any idea that running away from the president is going to help any candidate or help any political party is just nonsense, especially in the Congress. I saw my colleagues on the Democrat side of the aisle do this in 1994 when we were poised to take control of the House. They began to run away from Bill Clinton. And I think it was a big mistake on their part.
JIM LEHRER: There are fresh reports that the steam has gone out of lobbying reform in the House. Is that true?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: No.
JIM LEHRER: No?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Absolutely not. It’s critically important for Congress to be able to do its work to have a sense of trust between the American people who sent us there and their Congress. And so lobbying reform, ethics reform, is an important step. We’re going to meet again this week, trying to put the final touches on what does this package look like? I’m committed to making sure that we move a package that shows the American people that we hear them. We’ve got a couple of our colleagues on each side of the aisle who have gotten themselves in trouble. It tends to hurt all of us. And I think what I see is 99.5 percent of my colleagues, Democrat and Republican, good, decent, hard- working people trying to do the best thing for their constituents and the country. But that’s not enough. We have to show the American people that that trust — we have to rebuild that trust. And I think that package will be moving over the coming weeks.
JIM LEHRER: There have been stories over the weekend that specifically say you are beginning to back off things like prohibiting the lobbyists to take members on trips or to meals and all that sort of thing; you are not in favor of a ban on that.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: My position hasn’t changed since, you know, the whole campaign that I went through to become the majority leader. What I want to do are things that make sense, not things that wave the flag: punish members, punish staff through no fault of their own. And the fact is, is that disclosure of this relationship between lobbyists and members and their staff I think is an important step in this process. I think the biggest thing we can do is to end this practice or reduce the practice of having unauthorized earmarks for spending in these appropriation bills that we pass. I think that it’s gotten out of control. I think there needs to be more transparency and accountability in this process, which I think at the end of the day will show American people we’re serious.
JIM LEHRER: Are you going to eliminate earmarks?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I don’t — I’ve never asked for one. I never will ask for one.
JIM LEHRER: What do they think about that back in Cincinnati?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: There are some people in Cincinnati who don’t like it but most of them-
JIM LEHRER: You have got to explain what an earmark is. An earmark is — well, you explain what it is.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, an earmark is unauthorized earmarking of money for a project in a member district. It’s gone on for a long time. But over the last 15 years I think it’s gotten — it’s grown. And I think it’s out of control. And so what I want to do is to reduce earmarks. There are some earmarks that are good.
JIM LEHRER: Who is going to decide what the good ones are and the bad ones?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Transparency. You put the earmark in a bill. Put a name to it and allow members to have an opportunity –
JIM LEHRER: Boehner wants this for his people in Cincinnati -
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: — and everybody knows it?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: That’s exactly right.
JIM LEHRER: Everybody’s going to vote on it?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: And that way if somebody wants to challenge that, they can. But everybody ought to know that it’s there and what it’s for.
JIM LEHRER: Back to my earlier question, you don’t want to — you’re more in favor of transparency than you are in new rules, right?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, those are new rules. The transparency would be –
JIM LEHRER: Well, for instance, a lobbyist can now take you to dinner, to lunch, allow you to –
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: As long as it’s under $50.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: You know, you can’t take any –
JIM LEHRER: But you can go on a trip; he can pay for you to go on a trip?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: No, no, a lobbyist can’t pay for it. An organization can pay for it, whether they be a for-profit organization or a nonprofit organization, whether it’s the Aspen Institute or the Futures Industry Association. No lobbyist, though, can pay for your travel.
JIM LEHRER: But the lobby can. I mean, the interest can that a lobby might represent even though the lobby itself cannot, right? Same thing, isn’t that the same thing? Or am I missing something?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Well, it’s got to be a bona fide organization.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Now most of the trips I’ve taken over the years I’ve gotten pre-approval from the Ethics Committee to make sure that I was following the rules. I think what we’re likely to see is this pre-approval process go into place. And I think this year we may ban all travel for the balance of this year and require the Ethics Committee to set up a process to pre-approve travel for members.
JIM LEHRER: You’d be in favor of that?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I am in favor of it.
JIM LEHRER: Tom DeLay, you took his place as majority leader. Is he still a power in the House of Representatives?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: He is. He’s been there for 21 years — a seasoned member; knows his way around obviously; and someone that many of us have a lot of respect for.
JIM LEHRER: Do you — how would you contrast your way of doing things with his?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: As I told an interviewer several months ago, you know, I just believe you catch more bees with honey than you do vinegar so my style is different. My personality is different. It doesn’t mean that I’m better than Tom. Tom had his way of doing business; I have mine.
JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that you’ve got a special burden or a special thing to show because the man you replaced has a little bit of a cloud over him; you’ve got to show John Boehner is no Tom DeLay?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: No, I think I just need to be myself. I’ve gotten along this long in life just being me. I’m just an ordinary guy with a big job. And what I need to do is work with my colleagues, help keep my colleagues talking to each other, and allowing them to participate in this process. You know, over the last few years a lot of my colleagues feel like that the process in the Congress has become a little bit top heavy and top down. I’m a big believer in being part of the team. And I’m no more important a member of that team than any of my colleagues. But we have to get our team working together and get ourselves back on offense.
JIM LEHRER: When you say our team, you mean the Republican team?
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: The Republican team.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t mean the House. You mean –
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I mean the Republican team.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. All right. Congressman Boehner, thank you very much.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Jim, thank you.