WASHINGTON — New House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, who himself has been criticized for cozying up to Washington lobbyists, said Sunday that the public should know more about how lawmakers interacted with the lobbying industry, but he also stressed that politicians should not automatically stop taking trips paid for by special-interest groups.
The Ohio Republican was making his first television appearances on the Sunday political talk shows since House Republicans chose him Thursday to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as majority leader.
Boehner vigorously defended ties to lobbyists -- his own and his colleagues' -- as essential for any member of Congress trying to understand national and world issues.
He said that as long as trips were approved by the House Ethics Committee, representatives should be allowed to accept travel sponsored by outside groups, and he defended his own trips -- six to Boca Raton, Fla., four to Scottsdale, Ariz., and others to Rome, Venice and Paris. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has proposed a ban on privately funded trips.
If a trip meets the rules of the House, "we ought to allow members to do it," Boehner told "Fox News Sunday." "We can't lock members up in a cubbyhole here in Washington and never let them see what's going on around the country and around the world."
As for his own trips, he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "people invite me to go give speeches, and I go give them."
At the same time, Boehner encouraged both political parties in the House and the Senate to continue discussing lobbying reform. The issue is likely to grow heated this year given the recent guilty pleas by lobbyist Jack Abramoff to federal fraud and conspiracy charges and the forthcoming trial of DeLay on state money-laundering charges in Texas.
"We need to deal with the underlying problems we have today," Boehner told Fox News. "And I believe that disclosure of the relationship between those who lobby us, whether they be paid lobbyists here in Washington, those from agencies or others," would "let the American people take a look at how this relationship works."
Boehner did not offer any new specifics on tightening rules.
Since his elevation to the second-highest position in the House -- one that some political observers speculate could make him speaker, the top post, before the decade is over -- Boehner has come under attack for his own ties to lobbyists. On NBC, he defended those ties this way: "I've got 11 brothers and sisters; my dad owned a bar. What you see is what you get. And I've got a very open relationship with lobbyists in town."
According to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization in Washington, at least 14 Capitol Hill aides who served under Boehner in Congress now work as lobbyists. PoliticalMoneyLine, a private group in Washington that tracks campaign financing, put him 10th on a list ranked by dollar value of 638 Congress members' privately funded trips from 2000 through 2005. (The list includes former members.)
And unlike other lawmakers linked to Abramoff, Boehner has declined to return about $30,000 that his political action committee received from clients of Abramoff.
"I didn't know Jack Abramoff. I may have met him once," Boehner told NBC. Then, saying he had worked on education and labor issues with Abramoff's Indian tribal clients, he added, "Why would I give the money back?"
Boehner said he should not have passed out money from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor in 1995 while it was in session -- an incident in which he was publicly ridiculed for "playing Santa Claus."
"It was a big mistake, and I regret it," Boehner said Sunday. "I shouldn't have done it. It was an old practice that had gone on in the House for a long time, and I do regret it."
Boehner defended his predecessor as majority leader and said he believed DeLay was not guilty of the charges against him.
Still, Boehner said, he will not necessarily relinquish the post if DeLay is acquitted and wants it back. "I'm sure we'll talk about it," Boehner said. But he added: "We had an election, and I won."