Rep. Obey Retires: Progressive Congressman, a Committee Chair, Calls It a Day
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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 benefited 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.
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.
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.