Amid Budget Negotiations, Boehner Finds Time for Jokes

Speaker drops by 30th annual Bryce Harlow Foundation dinner on way to White House

On the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans alike are quick to decry the special interests that have infiltrated the policy-making process in Washington. Whether or not they stay true to those values once elected is another matter. Wednesday night provided a great example of the more true-to-life relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists.

The 30th annual Bryce Harlow Foundation award dinner, held at the Capital Hilton, brought together senators, members of Congress, and lobbyists. Speaker of the House John Boehner even made time to stop by on his way to the White House to meet with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to discuss a budget compromise.

The Bryce Harlow Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting high standards in the government-relations industry. Proceeds from the annual dinner support the foundation’s fellowships, which are given to students pursuing lobbying careers.

Boehner was there to introduce honoree John Castellani, current president and CEO of the powerful drug-company trade group PhRMA and previously head of the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs. Castellani received the group’s business-government-relations award, given to leaders within the lobbying community.

Despite the somber White House meeting ahead of him, Boehner opened with a joke, telling the audience, “I promise I will treat you the way Elizabeth Taylor treated her fifth husband, when she said, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t keep you long.’ ” He went on to praise the lobbyists in the room and all they do to promote business and “defend the American dream.” Boehner didn’t discuss the budget negotiations, though he reiterated his frequent refrain that the size of the national debt is “immoral.”

Senators Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl also attended. Kyl received the group’s public-sector award, bestowed upon an elected official that the foundation believes has demonstrated integrity and professionalism. During Lieberman’s introduction of Kyl, he managed to slip in jokes about the looming government shut-down, as well as . . . Viagra.

Lieberman told the gathered lobbyists that if they had noticed Hill staffers looking dazed lately, it was only because they were asking themselves, “Am I really essential?”—a reference to the fact that nonessential government employees won’t be able to work if the government shuts down. Lieberman also recalled speaking at an Alfalfa Club dinner at the same hotel during a period when campaign finance reform was a hot issue. During that speech, he said he joked that he had asked Pfizer if they could develop a version of Viagra that would turn soft money hard.

At least one room was laughing in Washington last night. Down the block at the White House, there likely weren’t many laughs as Boehner, Obama, and Reid failed to reach that compromise.

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Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She was previously a reporter for Legal Times and the National Law Journal. She has recently written about the Marriott family’s civil war and the 50-year rebirth of 14th Street, and reported the definitive oral history of the Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt case. She lives in Northeast DC with her husband, two dogs, and two cats.