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.
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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.
And, when the health-care bill passed, Obey started thinking about retiring.
"For years, I said the only reason I was hanging on was to pass health care, and I told people, ‘Tell the Republicans if they want me to leave, pass health care,’" Obey said Wednesday, at the press conference announcing his retirement. "Well, we passed it."
Ultimately, Obey was about passing bills. As he said, he did not come to Congress to pontificate or debate. He came to "get things done."
The congressman did not like compromise. Were it left to him, the balances would have tipped hard against the elites and in favor of working families – especially in the small manufacturing cities and farm country of the upper Midwest that he felt it was his particular responsibility to represent.
But he did what was necessary to get legislation passed because bitter experience told him that dithering and delay prevented progress for those without jobs, health care and access to education. And he was not one to gain a majority and then fail to act; raised a Republican but turned to the Democrats as a youth horrified by the excesses of the McCarthy era, Obey was willing to work across lines of partisanship and ideology – but he never left any doubt that he wanted great big and liberal Democratic majorities so that he could advance great big and liberal legislation.
Nor did he suffer fools lightly, especially Republican fools. His disdain for former President George W. Bush was such that, at his retirement announcement, he made a point of noting that, while he had pondered leaving the House earlier: "I was determined to outlast him."
The congressman’s inspiration came from his youth in northern Wisconsin’s Marathon County.
Obey’s father was temporarily paralyzed when the congressman was young. "Nobody knew what caused it,"
Dave recalled. "But after a number of months, he slowly regained the use of his arms. We were scared. That experience taught me that working families are often just one paycheck away from economic disaster. And it showed me first-hand the importance of every family having access to good health care."
When Obey was just starting at the University of Wisconsin, his father lost a good job with the 3M Company. "That scared me," said Obey, "because I had no idea how much help I would get from home in finishing my education. And that experience burned into me the conviction that access to education ought to be based on how much you are willing to learn and how hard you are willing to work, not on how many dollars your family has in their bank account."
On issue after issue, the congressman would remember an experience from his own youth to explain his distrust of corporate and political elites, and his determination to turn the tables on them. For Obey, it was always a matter of basic fairness. He wanted a level playing field for all Americans. And he was willing to work for as long as it took to achieve that balance.
That was why, after he shocked the nation by winning the 1969 special election to fill the House seat left vacant when veteran Republican Congressman Mel Laird was appointed as Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Obey immediately burrowed into the committee work that earned few headlines but ultimately determined whether a federal program had the resources that were needed to make it work.
From the start, Obey’s mantra was the same: "I have an obligation to fight and to fight hard for what I believe in and for the progressive principles that we are supposed to defend.”
If a jobs, or education or health-care bill was not to his liking, Obey believed that he would be around to “make a bad bill better” in the next Congress. And he usually did just that, as one of the steadiest defenders of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, higher education, public broadcasting and progressive taxation in the House.
But, as of next January, Obey will no longer be there. At 71, he is younger than some committee chairs; and, despite an energetic Republican challenge from a former MTV “reality TV” star, he probably would have been reelected by voters in a Democratic-leaning district that backed him in forty primary and general elections. Obey was not engaging in hyperbole when he said that pundits would have "to be smoking something that’s illegal" to think his factory-and-farm district would elect "a clone of George Bush."
But Obey always said of his (and every) House seat: “It’s not a lifetime appointment.”
Much will be made of the fact that Obey is the highest-ranking Democrat to leave the House in what many see as a difficult year for Democrats. Already, national Republicans are claiming a sort of win. But Wisconsin Republicans know their prospects just dimmed, as they were excited about running against a “Washington insider” not a Democratic newcomer in a district that tends to elect Democrats.
But Obey was far less of a Washington insider than most committee chairs — or than any member who obtained his kind of seniority (he’s the third longest-serving member of the current House, after two Michigan congressmen with whom he often worked closely, John Dingell and John Conyers.)
Obey did not try to fit into official Washington. He treated lobbyists gruffly and reserved his meeting time for constituents from northern Wisconsin — his staff was instructed to avoid scheduling sitdown sessions with advocates unless the group included Wisconsinites. He shied away from the DC party circuit, except if his bluegrass band, The Capitol Offenses, was invited to play. (The chairman played harmonica on three albums recorded by the group.) And he berated fellow Democrats for going soft on their New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society commitments.
In truth, however, what distinguished David Obey was an older faith. He kept a picture of Robert M. La Follette, the progressive governor of Wisconsin, senator and 1924 radical presidential candidate behind his desk. And he opened his biography on his official congressional website with the words: “Every American who works hard should be able to fully share in the bounty of America and so should their families. That is the bedrock belief of the Wisconsin La Follette Progressive tradition since the days of its founder, Senator Robert La Follette, and it is the belief that drives Wisconsin’s 7th District Congressman Dave Obey today.”
That really was the case.
And that is why, in a season of many congressional retirements, none will matter more to progressive policymaking and to the interests of workers, farmers and small business owners on the main streets of America than this one.