Rep. David Obey (D)
Elected: April 1969, 20th full term.
Born: Oct. 3, 1938, Okmulgee, OK .
Education: U. of WI, B.S. 1960, M.A., 1962.
Family: Married (Joan); 2 children.
Elected office: WI Assembly, 1962–69.
Professional Career: Asst., family-run supper club & motel, 1962–68.
The congressman from the 7th District is David Obey, a Democrat first elected in April 1969 and now the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He is the third-most-senior member of the House and one of the most capable and strongly motivated legislators on either side of the aisle. And he certainly is among the most colorful when he’s worked up over an issue, which is fairly frequently. Obey grew up in Wausau, where his father worked in a roofing factory. As a kid, he was expelled from Catholic school after punching a nun who had hit him. He started his young adulthood as a Republican but was turned off by the anticommunism scare tactics of Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin in the 1950s. He switched his support from Dwight Eisenhower to Adlai Stevenson. Obey graduated from the University of Wisconsin, studied Soviet politics for three years in graduate school, and in 1962, when he was 24 and before he’d finished his master’s degree, was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly. When Melvin Laird resigned his House seat to become President Richard Nixon’s Defense secretary, Obey won an upset victory in the April 1969 special election to succeed him.
|David Obey (D)||212,666||(61%)||($1,560,229)|
|Dan Mielke (R)||136,938||(39%)||($92,501)|
|David Obey (D)||25,100||(99%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (62%), 2004 (86%), 2002 (64%), 2000 (63%), 1998 (61%), 1996 (57%), 1994 (54%), 1992 (64%), 1990 (62%), 1988 (62%), 1986 (62%), 1984 (61%), 1982 (68%), 1980 (65%), 1978 (62%), 1976 (73%), 1974 (71%), 1972 (63%), 1970 (68%), 1969 (52%)
Even as he has moved to the top of the seniority ladder, Obey has retained his eagerness to fight for what he believes in and continues to display abundant energy and leadership on a host of fronts. He is prickly and does not suffer fools gladly, though he can leaven his impact on others with humor. He has had his disappointments. He lost the Budget Committee chairmanship to Oklahoma’s Jim Jones in 1980 by 121-116. In 1984, he wanted to become Democratic Caucus chairman, but backed off when it became clear that Missouri’s Dick Gephardt had the votes. Even so, Obey became an informal leader of liberal Democrats. He supported House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s rise in the leadership, despite some friction with other Pelosi supporters, including California’s George Miller and Pennsylvania’s John Murtha.
Obey was inspired in politics by older New Deal Democrats and by the liberals who led the charge against the Vietnam War. He remains a true believer in traditional liberalism, in Keynesian economics and in economic redistribution. He thinks that government should provide economic security, create jobs and build infrastructure through public investment, that it should control health-care costs and guarantee coverage and a choice of providers. During the years when Democrat Bill Clinton was president, he vocally opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the president backed away from universal health-care coverage in 1994, Obey said “then I will walk away from the Clinton health care plan” and supported his real preference, a single-payer system. He was one of Clinton’s harshest critics when the president accepted the congressional Republican majority’s goal of a balanced budget within seven years. Obey also breaks with Democratic orthodoxy on abortion, having voted for limits on the procedure, though he says he is not for abolishing abortion rights. When former La Crosse Archbishop Raymond Burke admonished Catholic officeholders who hadn’t sought to outlaw abortion, Obey wrote in the Jesuit publication America, “While I detest abortion and agree with Catholic teaching that in most instances it is morally wrong, I decline to force my views into laws that, if adopted, would be unenforceable and would tear this society apart.” As a representative of a district chock-full of North Woods hunters, he also opposes gun control.
Obey is above all an appropriator and takes some justifiable pride in his skill at this work. He first got his seat on Appropriations in August 1969, when he was just 30. He became chairman in March 1994, after the death of William Natcher of Kentucky. He was the youngest person to hold the post since James Good of Iowa did in 1919, and he won the job over the more-senior Neal Smith of Iowa. Smith had the support of the “cardinals,” as the powerful Appropriations subcommittee chairmen are known, but Obey had more support from non-committee liberals and less-senior members. He won the vote in the Democratic Caucus 152-106. Obey showed a determination to get things done on time—which is not always how appropriating works. For years, much of his work was on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which he chaired from 1985 to 1995. This panel handles small sums of money but deals with some sensitive issues, and it was often rocked by disputes over aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, the pace of negotiations in the Middle East, and the treatment of the liberated nations of Eastern Europe. Obey has not always gotten his way, but in each case he tried to move appropriations bills forward in an orderly manner. He passed separate foreign-operations appropriation bills nine out of 10 years, something that had been accomplished only twice in 10 years by his predecessors. Similarly, when Obey became chairman of the full committee in 1994, all 13 appropriations bills were signed into law prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year, the first time in 47 years that that had happened.
Unlike most other committees, Appropriations runs on bipartisanship. There may be partisan votes on alternative bills, but the subcommittees and the full committee tend to come to consensus on how to spend the amounts they are allocated by the budget resolution. During the 12 years of Republican control of the House, Obey worked relatively amicably with Chairman Bob Livingston of Louisiana from 1995 to 1999 and with Chairman Bill Young of Florida from 1999 to 2005. His relationship with Republican Jerry Lewis of California, who was the chairman from 2005 to 2007 and is now the ranking minority member, is not as warm. When Lewis reduced the number of subcommittees from 13 to 10 in 2005, Obey complained that Democrats had been frozen out of the process: “The result of this is you have not seen power this centralized since the days of Czar Cannon.” In June 2008, as gas prices were skyrocketing, Lewis and other Republicans pushed to reopen the issue of lifting the ban on offshore drilling. When Obey and other Democrats refused to allow hearings on the topic, Lewis took them by surprise, attempting to steer an Appropriations meeting scheduled to discuss other issues to a vote on drilling. Obey exploded and halted all work on appropriations bills for the rest of the session. Lewis sent an olive branch in July, offering to drop the issue, but Obey wouldn’t budge. Without appropriations bills, the House had to adopt a special resolution to keep money flowing to the government for the rest of the year.
Obey is not one of the appropriators notorious for lavishing earmarks on their districts, though he has supported some. In 2007, he attached funding for Wisconsin’s SeniorCare prescription-drug program to an Iraq War spending bill after federal officials decided to end the program and move senior citizens to the national Medicare plan. The maneuver saved the state program.
The practice of earmarking funds became vastly more common during the years when Republicans held a majority in the House, and as an appropriator who did relatively little earmarking in support of his own district’s projects, Obey wasn’t averse to reforming the process. After he and Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia took over the Appropriations committees in their respective chambers, they announced that they would not allow any earmarks to go into effect in 2007. “The best way to get people’s attention that there needs to be serious reform is to say there won’t be any earmarks,” Obey said. “We have to build in some protection for when some idiot goes too far and fouls the nest. The problem is not earmarking. The problem is the abuse of earmarking.” The following year, he threatened to do away with earmarks completely if the minority party decided to “demagogue” the issue. In the resulting uproar, Republicans stalled progress on appropriations bills on the House floor for three days. Obey and party leaders eventually brokered a compromise that let the first two appropriations bills go forward without earmarks but allowed earmarks to be added up front to later bills. Republicans also agreed to let bills proceed in a timely fashion.
Obey has stirred controversy on other issues as well. In 2006, he called President George W. Bush’s budget “wrongheaded and embarrassing” and said the administration had “the most fiscally irresponsible people to ever occupy the White House.” He was especially critical of the freeze on Pell grants. In October 2007, he suggested a temporary tax to cover Bush’s request for $145 billion in supplemental spending for Iraq. Republicans ridiculed the plan, and the Democratic leadership, wary of any proposal that reminded the public of the “tax-and-spend” label, immediately shot down the idea. In early 2009, Pelosi put Obey in charge of designing the $787 billion economic-stimulus bill sought by the Obama administration. Obey told the Washington Post in January 2009 that he favored an even bigger stimulus bill, but added, “This is my honest effort to find the equilibrium where a majority of people in the place can feel comfortable with what we have done.” He guided the bill to passage in the House in February.
Obey voted against the Iraq war resolution in October 2002 and was harshly critical of the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq. In 2003, he called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. In 2007, he was tasked with constructing a supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq with timetables for withdrawal. In the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building, he was approached by antiwar activist Tina Richards, who said he should immediately curtail war funding. “Do you see a magic wand in my pocket? We don’t have the votes for it,” he said in a caustic, six-minute exchange with Richards captured by a cell-phone camera and posted on the YouTube website. He charged that “idiot liberals” didn’t understand the bill and said, “We’re trying to use the supplemental to end the war.” When details of the plan were leaked to the press, Obey announced that he had deliberately fed false information to different committee members in order to “see who the hell was leaking that information” and to keep those members from being invited to future meetings. Obey claimed that he had identified two leakers, but never said who they were.
Obey faced a balancing act with the bill: He had to keep sufficient numbers of liberals in the Out of Iraq Caucus satisfied but also keep conservative Blue Dog Democrats on board. When Democrats cheered Obey as he arrived on the House floor to discuss the bill, he yelled in frustration, “I don’t want your applause! I want your damned votes!” Obey managed to cobble together a bill that added benchmarks for progress in the war and a timetable for troop withdrawal, but fully funded the war through 2008. His compromise kept defections low enough for the bill to pass the House, albeit by just six votes. Seven Blue Dog Democrats and seven liberal Democrats voted no, but two moderate Republicans voted yes.
Almost always combative toward Republicans, Obey doesn’t kowtow to members of his own party. Shortly after Obama’s election as president, Obey derisively referred to him as a “crown prince.” He only reluctantly backed Obama’s plans to send more troops to Afghanistan and added a provision to a war spending bill requiring the administration to report in 2010 on progress toward stability and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also cut $80 million from the bill that would have gone to close the Guantanamo Bay detainee camp because, he said, Obama’s plan was not well developed. He added, “While I don’t mind defending a concrete program, I’m not much interested in wasting my energy defending a theoretical program.”
Obey has been re-elected by wide margins, except in 1994, when he won 54%-46%. He has said he plans to run at least through 2010, before the next round of redistricting.