House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-CA, presides over the committee’s hearing on Syria, Thursday, April 19, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The political future of Howard “Buck” McKeon, a Southern California congressman who routinely wins re-election by a wide margin, is suddenly in doubt.
McKeon, who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, has left a big mark in the policy arena. From his support for the proliferation of domestic drones to his maneuvering to exclude the Pentagon and major military contractors from automatic across-the-board budget cuts next year, McKeon has been a loyal servant of the defense industry.
His corporate-friendly approach to lawmaking has also favored profit-seeking online colleges, which won access to virtually unlimited federal assistance on his watch. Almost all of McKeon’s significant legislative accomplishments involve the transfer of huge amounts of taxpayer money to quasi-private entities that are then liberated from government oversight.
Along the way, special interests have lavished the congressman with favors and gifts. What distinguishes McKeon is not just the way pay-to-play legislating has filled his campaign coffers.
Also remarkable is how he has milked his political connections for personal financial gain. This legacy is coming back to haunt him as he fends of a strong challenge from Democrat Lee Rogers this November.
McKeon’s troubles date back to the late nineties, when, as Newt Gingrich’s star faded, McKeon weighed a bid for Majority Leader, but gave up that idea to make room for Representative Dick Armey (R-TX).
Shortly thereafter, the family cowboy fashion store, which had made McKeon a millionaire when he was first sworn into office, would file for bankruptcy and liquidate every ostrich skin boot and ten-gallon hat. The Los Angeles Times reported that in 1996, Howard & Phil Enterprises Inc. had “assets of $10.2 million and debts of $16.7 million.” Ethics disclosures forms filed with the House Clerk show that McKeon stopped earning an outside salary from the store by 1998; by 1999, his store was forced to sell off all assets.
Ironically for the congressman who worked to outlaw bankruptcy protection for millions of students (a law he helped pass in 1998 made it nearly impossible to discharge student loan debt), Chapter 11 helped keep hundreds of creditors at bay for the cowboy store.
In recent years McKeon has faced more personal financial troubles. In March and April of 2008, McKeon sold off almost every asset he owned, from index funds and other financial investments. His latest financial disclosure states that his personal debt is between $1,010,003 and $2,015,000 (ethics disclosure forms show a range, rather than a specific number). It’s a mystery why McKeon, who earns a $174,000 a year salary as a member of Congress, incurred so much debt.
Whatever the explanation for McKeon’s debt, it was long before his recent struggles that he began to use his political position for personal financial benefit.