House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, an old-school Wisconsin progressive whose election to the House in 1969 was hailed nationally as a setback not just for then-President Richard Nixon but for Democrats who wanted to compromise with a Republican president on Vietnam and domestic policy, will leave the Congress as its most powerful populist — a member of the leadership who to the end complained about the caution of fellow Democrats "who should know better."
Obey, a definitional player in budget fights since Democrats retook control of the House in 2006, never sought or obtained the high profile of the speakers and majority leaders with whom he has served for more than four decades. But his dominant position of the all-powerful appropriations committee meant that the Wisconsinite was able to set the agenda.
It was not so much that Obey liked power. He liked lawmaking, especially when it benefitted low-income and working-class Americans. He wanted tangible results, and he got them.
As such, Obey represented the left wing of the possible in a House prone to compromise. He did not do as much as some of us would have liked to constrain funding for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan — even as he criticized both — but on domestic policy he was one of the truest believers in the prospect that government could do good.
Obey’s passions were economic and social. He didn’t reject the market; but he wasn’t willing to invest blind faith in it. He believed in investing federal dollars in roads and bridges, schools and housing projects, factories and farms.
Last year, he wrote an $800 billion stimulus bill that was straight out of the New Deal – packed with spending for infrastructure, schools and the stabilization of social-welfare programs administered by state and local governments. It passed the House pretty much as Obey intended, thanks to the smooth partnership between Obey and a member he mentored into the leadership, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
In the ugly negotiations that were required to get around the Senate’s filibuster barrier, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, bartered away much of what Obey has included. Thus, instead of a “next New Deal,” the final package was a disappointing compromise measure where genuine stimulus spending was traded for spending to cut taxes for the elites.
Obey grumbled. He always grumbled. (At his press conference Wednesday, Obey observed: "There’s got to be more to life than explaining Senate procedures to angry constituents or begging Blue Dogs to do what they ought to do by rote.")
But the congressman dug into the details of the health-care reform legislation and, again, played a critical role in getting it passed. Indeed, Pelosi admitted, the process would have been dramatically more difficult without Obey at the helm of the key committee.
The appropriations chairman did this even as his frustration with the Obama administration’s caution – and its decision to surge more troops into an Afghan occupation that he feared was developing into a Vietnam-style quagmire – flared at times.