As the smoke clears on his career, Boehner cashes in thanks to lobbying loopholes

John Boehner at CPAC in 2012
(Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

When former House Speaker John Boehner announced his departure from Congress, USA Today surmised he could “cash in as a lobbyist.” Not even a year after retiring, Boehner is now cashing checks thanks to his work on behalf of myriad special interests.

One last drag from tobacco industry

Twenty-one years ago, Boehner doled out checks from tobacco lobbyists to his peers on the House floor in hopes of parlaying the cash into votes. That foreshadowed what would become the former speaker’s intimate relationship with the influence industry.

The former speaker took more money from the tobacco industry during his tenure than any other lawmaker during his 26 years in Congress. But his bad habit created a good opportunity at one of tobacco’s biggest names: Reynolds American, which makes Newport and Camel cigarettes — Boehner’s favorite — announced he was joining its company board to serve on its corporate governance department. Many believe his new role there will pay nearly double his yearly income on the Hill.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they paid him upwards of a million dollars,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at The McCormick Group, to The Hill. “Typically, the average salary for a former senator will start at about $1 million at a K Street law firm. For a prominent House member, it’s $500,000 and up, unless it’s someone really special. With leadership, you get a little bit more.”

The move to a big tobacco firm makes sense for Boehner: He was so committed to his love affair with cigarettes that officials in the Capitol wanted to remove priceless artwork traditionally kept in the House speaker’s office to avoid damage from smoke. When he left congress, his office had to be fumigated to rid it of the smell. According to The New York Times, “The House superintendent replaced carpets, peeled the paint off the walls and repainted them, and replaced the curtains, all in the name of smoke odor eradication.”

Boehner to Boggs

Shortly after announcing his role at Reynolds, Boehner found another gig at what was previously the largest lobbying firm on K Street by revenue: Squire Patton Boggs. The firm is known for its wielding influence on behalf of foreign interests, including work with China. After years of supporting unfettered trade deals while in Congress – even when the rest of his peers wanted a tougher stance against China – Boehner may finally reap the benefits from his loyalty overseas.

Former Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., as well as Boehner’s former advisors David Schnittger and Natasha Hammond have all worked at Boggs for years as registered lobbyists.

Boehner could reunite with his biggest campaign donor from 2012, AT&T, who is a client at Boggs. The firm also worked for the Las Vegas Sands casino company — owned by GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson — which gave Boehner $50,600 in 2014, and copper corporation Freeport-McMoRan, which gave $40,800 the same year.

Boehner cannot contact his former colleagues in a lobbyist capacity until the end of this month, the tail end of a one-year “cooling off” period that all exiting members of Congress are subject to. While seemingly engaged in lobbying activity, Boehner will hold the title of strategic advisor. (It appears Boggs thinks you spell lobbyist “s-t-r-a-t-e-g-i-c a-d-v-i-s-o-r.”)  

The rise of ‘shadow lobbying’

Earlier this summer, the Sunlight Foundation found that nearly 10 percent of the DNC superdelegates were registered lobbyists. However, that number would have increased to over 15 percent if we counted “shadow lobbyists” — those who perform lobbying activities but are not registered.

Registered lobbyists continue to dip year after year. But is there less lobbying activity today or just less disclosure of it?

Since the Lobbying Disclosure Act, lobbyists have done all they can to avoid “the L-word” — and they’ve skirted the rules rather simply. As long as an individual’s lobbying activities where less than 20 percent of their time working, they didn’t have to register. In 2007, Congress amended the act with the House Leadership and Open Government Act, which required greater lobbying disclosure in an attempt to slow the “revolving door” between public service and the influence industry. But much of the language – including the 20 percent rule – remained the same. This drove lobbyists underground and had a chilling effect on registration, leading to the emergence of so-called “shadow lobbyists.”

Of the 75 House members and senators who left Capitol Hill at the end of the 113th Congress, almost half of them went to work for lobbying firms, according to OpenSecrets. These former lawmakers largely followed the blueprint laid by former lawmaker Tom Daschle, who spent a decade doing “government affairs” work for several corporations before finally registering as an out-and-out lobbyist.

These positions aren’t companies offering Boehner a position out of charity, but possible reciprocation. As Lee Fang illustrates, it took years of loyalty in Congress to parlay his lobbying alliances into these new roles:

In 2006, the Washington Post revealed that Boehner lived in an apartment on Capitol Hill rented to him by a lobbyist who did business with his committee. As Republican leader, he was known for scheduling votes around fundraising events, including one incident in which Boehner interrupted House proceedings so he could attend a lobbyist-fueled bash called the Boehner Beach Party.

Last year, Sunlight noted the current toothless lobbying restrictions in place give current and former lawmakers too much wiggle-room. “The many loopholes limiting who can lobby whom in Washington and whether that lobbying must be disclosed to the public make a hunk of Swiss cheese look like the Berlin Wall,” we wrote, along with Center for Responsive Politics.

There is nothing inherently malicious about the political revolving door. But when lawmakers use their contacts and tenure in Congress as an audition for more lucrative business, it raises questions about whether their public service was just a stepping stone for their future career.