Sunday, January 19, 2003

Boehner's eyes on issues

Local lawmaker tackles education, work

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - School. College. Job. Retirement.

Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner has jurisdiction over all of that. He's chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, overseeing a vast portfolio of issues that will touch every American at some point.

In the new two-year session of Congress, the West Chester Republican plans to take on some volatile issues: improving special education, increasing college aid, balancing work and family, and reforming pension laws.

As former president of a plastics and packaging sales company, his take on most issues is that of a businessman: Offer the best product from the government at the least cost with as little red tape as possible.

"I feel strongly that the best role for the federal government to play in education and labor matters is to return as much power as possible to individuals, to those closest to a problem," he said.

Rep. Boehner

Name: Rep. John Andrew Boehner, R-Ohio.
Age: 53.
Born: Nov. 17, 1949, in Cincinnati.
Education: Bachelor's from Xavier University, 1977.
Religion: Catholic.
Family: Wife, Debbie; two daughters.
Home: West Chester.
Career experience: Joined Nucite Sales, packaging and plastics company, rising to become company president. Union Township trustee, 1982-84; Ohio House, 1984-90. U.S. House, 1991 to present.
In education, that philosophy expresses itself as a support for vouchers, something he'd like to see given a chance in special education this year, though he admits it may not be politically possible. He also would like to cut down paperwork when the committee this year rewrites the massive bill governing special education.

On the job for jobs

In workplace issues, it means he would like to see companies be able to offer compensatory time to hourly workers. A Depression-era federal law requires those workers get only overtime. Unions oppose a change.

"Why shouldn't an employee have the option of taking comp time instead of overtime?" Mr. Boehner asked. "Given the demands of these families today, many of them would rather have comp time."

On pensions, it means offering workers advice but little more. His favored legislation wouldn't go nearly as far as Democrats in restricting how much company stock can be included in a company's retirement plan.

Mr. Boehner also will be charged with shepherding President Bush's plan for allowing unemployed workers to receive cash bonuses of up to $3,000 through Congress.

Mr. Boehner is promoting the Personal Re-employment Accounts. They could be used for job training that local work force agencies don't offer, child care, transportation, relocation expenses, and even income for people who have exhausted unemployment benefits.

"I think this provides real incentives for people to enhance their job skills and to get back to work," Mr. Boehner said.

Most of the bills that will go through his 49-member committee this year will be repeats from last year.

The major difference this year: His party also controls the Senate. So instead of dying in House-Senate conferences, a Boehner-backed bill is more likely to get the president's signature.

Mr. Boehner, 53, grew up as one of 11 kids in a blue-collar Catholic family in Reading and went to Catholic schools, graduating from Moeller High School in Montgomery in 1968. But he sent his two daughters to what was then known as Lakota High School, the public high school in West Chester.

From township to House

He got his start in community politics, working his way up through the Union Township board to the Ohio House to the U.S. House in 1990.

In a forerunner to the 1994 "Republican revolution," he joined with former Rep. Newt Gingrich as part of the Gang of Seven, who pushed to cut House perks and make the House subject to laws it inflicted on the rest of the country. He said his goal is a "more accountable federal government."

When the GOP took over the House after the 1994 elections, Mr. Boehner rose to the No. 3 position, conference chairman, only to lose it after the Republican disaster in the 1998 elections. He landed as chairman of the House education committee.

The Education and Workforce Committee, like the House Judiciary Committee, tends to be ideologically polarized, thanks to the hot-button nature of issues it covers. It attracts members with strong feelings on education or labor. Many committee votes split along party lines.

Mr. Boehner is a solid conservative, a creator of the Republican Contract with America in 1994, and a man who voted with his party's leadership 97 percent of the time last year.

The top Democrat on the committee, George Miller of California, is a liberal who has very sharp policy differences with Mr. Boehner, said his spokesman, Daniel Weiss.

But he and Mr. Boehner get along surprisingly well. Along with liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, they joined in 2001 to push through the No Child Left Behind Act that sets new standards for schools.

`Moderating influence'

Unions, which often disagree with Mr. Boehner on issues, say they find him open, honest and a guy more interested in getting things done than posturing.

"I think, surprisingly, he has been a moderating influence on the more ideologically driven members of his committee," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's top lobbyist in Washington.

In Washington, Mr. Boehner is known for his smoking, his dark tan, and his lack of pomposity; he's willing to make himself the butt of jokes.

Talking about his first race of Congress against former Rep. Tom Kindness of Hamilton, he told Xavier Magazine last year: "It wasn't easy when my name looks like Beener, Bonner or Boner, and his name was Kindness."

Donald Kaniewski, top lobbyist for the Laborers International Union, said Mr. Boehner's relaxed manner makes him easy to deal with even when the disagreements are profound.

"We don't always agree with him, but you always know where he stands," Mr. Kaniewski said.

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