After a dilapidated garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh last spring, killing more than 1,100 workers, only one member of Congress made the trip halfway around the world to find out what happened.
Democratic Rep. George Miller, who announced Monday that he will retire after 40 years in the House, traveled to Bangladesh just weeks after the disaster and returned to his California district with strong words for U.S. companies that do business with overseas sweat shops.
"I met with victims in the hospitals who lost limbs, lost their legs, their arms, their hands," Miller told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It was just a very, very sad event, to recognize how badly these individuals had been damaged because of the carelessness of the industry and the government."
Former Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who worked closely with Miller for years on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, was not surprised that Miller made the long trip. "That would fit his values," Kildee said Monday.
On labor issues, health care, environmental protection, and especially education, Miller has long been a well-informed and outspoken advocate for the disadvantaged and downtrodden. "The guy is brilliant when it comes to the federal role in education," Kildee said.
Miller, 68, acknowledged his top priorities in a statement Monday announcing his plans to retire at the end of this Congress.
"I'm proud of what I have been able to accomplish on behalf of children, working people, and the environment, in my district and for our country, especially passage of national health care reform," he said. "I have not won every fight that I have waged. And there remain, of course, many critical challenges waiting to be addressed. But I have no regrets about what I have accomplished and what I have tried to accomplish in the public interest.
"Now, I look forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me, and I will not seek reelection this fall. What a wonderful experience this has been."
Now the fifth-ranking member of the House, Miller's departure will mean just two other members who entered Congress in the two elections after the Watergate scandal — Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. — will remain, assuming they are reelected this year.
The son of a state senator, Miller started in politics as an aide to California Senate leader George Moscone, who was later the mayor of San Francisco. Miller won his first term in the House in 1974 with 56 percent of the vote, and his winning percentage never fell below that level in 19 subsequent elections.
For many years Miller has been ranked by National Journal as one of the most liberal members of Congress, and he is also one of the closest advisers to former Speaker and current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose district is not far from Miller's in the San Francisco area. The late columnist Robert Novak once wrote that Miller was Pelosi's "consigliere, always at her side."
That was certainly true during the divisive debate on health care reform, when Miller worked all hours to ensure that President Obama's top priority became reality. "He would not let it die," Kildee said.
Just last month the progressive magazine The Nation named Miller "the most valuable member of the House" for his work on the minimum wage, food stamps, garment-worker safety, and fair-trade policy. "The senior Democrat on the powerful Education and the Workforce Committee, Miller has been in the House since 1975," the magazine said. "But the California congressman has lost none of his fire."
Indeed, Miller's retirement statement gave no indication that he would be letting up. "I believe that we are in the midst of one of the most exciting and critical times for educational achievement, teacher empowerment, and school reform," he said. "This includes the smart application and use of technology that offers a remarkable opportunity to address and reduce persistent problems in American education, like improving educational equity, strengthening teacher performance, and revolutionizing the teaching and learning environment in schools.
"This type of education reform and innovative thinking can change the lives of millions of American children, strengthen our communities, and revitalize our economy," Miller said. "Unfortunately, that's not on this Congress's agenda. But these reforms must happen, and I want to be part of them."