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CONGRESS

Obey: Deficits Require More Than Bookkeeping

The House Appropriations chairman takes a dim view of budget cutters who focus solely on the numbers.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., hasn't been able to do much appropriating in recent weeks. The first fiscal 2009 appropriations bill hit the House floor on July 31, well behind the usual schedule. Work on the 12 annual spending measures stalled in late June because of Republican attempts to force Democrats to take embarrassing votes on amendments allowing more oil and gas drilling off U.S. coasts. And the bills face veto threats anyway from a White House bent on a last bout of fiscal conservatism. A stopgap continuing resolution keeping the government funded until after the election has long been a foregone conclusion.

 

But in a July 25 interview in his Capitol office, the blunt Obey was typically unapologetic about the lack of progress. He blamed "juvenile" Republicans for "turn[ing] the appropriations process into a three-ring circus."

"I told people from the beginning, I'm not going to waste the House's time on legislation that's going nowhere," Obey said. "If [Republicans] want to know why the appropriations bills haven't been moving, all they have to do is look in the mirror."

At 69, Obey has served in the House for 39 years, all of them as an appropriator. He did a brief stint as committee chairman in 1994, and then spent a long dozen years in the minority as ranking member. Looking ahead to 2009, Obey said in the interview that he foresees using the power of the purse to address long-standing national problems. He belittled the politician who focuses solely on the budget deficit as a "one-dimensional bookkeeper with a cardboard heart."

 

"This country has neglected for a long time so many of the basic investments that we need to make this country strong," Obey said. "Green-eyeshade actions aren't going to fix your long-term debt or deficit situation. Making the right investments that will help the economy grow will help do that."

Edited excerpts of the interview follow. A full transcript is available on nationaljournal.com.

NJ: Do you anticipate the war continuing to drain the federal budget?

Obey: This war has not only ruined this administration, it's ruined the first two years of the next one. There will still be such huge financial costs, and there will still be such deep policy dimensions. Afghanistan is in worse shape now than it's been in years. Sometimes if you screw something up the first time, you don't get a chance to fix it, and we screwed it up the first time.

 

NJ: Shortly after President Clinton was elected, he proposed a deficit-reduction package to deal with the big federal budget deficit and the foundering economy. Do you see parallels with today's situation?

Obey: I am very, very tired of one-dimensional politicians who simply talk about the deficit. In fact, we've got a hell of a lot of deficits. We've got a budget deficit. We've got an education deficit. We've got a health-care-coverage deficit. We've got a scientific-research deficit. We've got an infrastructure deficit. This country has neglected for a long time so many of the basic investments that we need to make this country strong. And we also have an equity deficit, a fairness deficit. I want to know that we're going to attack all of them.

The number that counts economically is not the year-to-year deficit number. If you have the heart of a CPA, then that's the only thing that matters to you. But if you are a public policy person trying to figure out how to strengthen this country and how to strengthen the ability of this economy to produce for everybody in the economy, then you need to look at things in a hell of a lot broader way.

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The top 10 percent [of income earners] today are skimming off 50 percent of all the income in the country. In 1980 that was 33 percent. That's a massive shift up the income scale. People in the bottom 40 percent essentially are being told, "To hell with you, you're on your own. Good luck. Buy a big rabbit's foot, and maybe life will be lucky to you." We've got to deal with those problems.

So if you want to talk to me about the deficit, I want to know that you're going to be dealing with all of the deficits that we've got, because otherwise, you're just a one-dimensional bookkeeper with a cardboard heart, and that's not where I come from.

NJ: What should Congress do first in January?

Obey: You have to set things up. You have to distinguish between the deficit and the debt. What's important over time is not what the annual deficit is. What's important is whether or not the debt as a percentage of our total national income is going in the right direction or the wrong direction.

I remember [Federal Reserve Chairman] Paul Volcker went to [Jimmy] Carter and said, "Mr. President, you've got to cut $13 billion out of your budget or we're going to have a deficit of $35 billion." So we met in [Senate Majority Leader] Bob Byrd's office for two and a half weeks earnestly going through every account in the budget, cutting here, cutting here, cutting here. We cut $16 billion. And you know what? The deficit doubled--to $70 billion--not the $35 billion Volcker was concerned about. Why? Because the economy went to hell.

So that's why green-eyeshade actions aren't going to fix your long-term debt or deficit situation. Making the right investments that will help the economy grow will help do that.

NJ: Since 1948, Congress has sent the president all of the appropriations bills by the start of the new fiscal year only once, in 1994, when you were chairman. Do you think that the appropriations process is broken?

Obey: I was able to get all those bills done not because I was so damn smart. It's because we had a cooperative atmosphere in this place. I simply walked across the aisle and I said to Joe McDade, who was the ranking Republican [on the Appropriations Committee], I said, "Joe, we may not agree on where every dollar should go in every bill, but why don't we at least sit down and work out a bipartisan allocation between the subcommittees, so we can at least agree how much for Interior, how much for Agriculture, how much for Defense, et cetera, et cetera." He was delighted. And so because we had a cooperative administration and we had a congenial relationship between the Democrats and the Republicans on the committee, we got it done.

This year, a lot of Republicans have made clear they intend to offer 150 amendments to the bills. Well, that's nothing but a filibuster by amendment. So I told people from the beginning, I'm not going to waste the House's time on legislation that's going nowhere. I told the Repubs, you guys play it straight, and we'll bring all the bills to the floor and try to get them done as close to the schedule as we can.

The Republicans squawked because on the supplemental [war funding bill], we didn't follow what they considered to be regular [legislative] order. In the end, that process was good enough for the White House, but the Republicans in the House raised hell about it, and [committee ranking member] Jerry Lewis demanded that we return to regular order.

So we returned to regular order on the regular appropriation bills, and within three days, he came at us out of left field and offered an amendment to substitute the Interior appropriations bill for the Labor, Health, and Education bill. He said the argument was [domestic oil and gas] drilling. I don't mind the drilling issue being confronted on the Interior bill. That's the appropriate vehicle. But I do mind when the minority decides that they're going to take advantage of committee rules, where we have no germaneness rule, and offer amendments which would clearly be out of order if they were offered on the House floor. So, if they want to know why the appropriations bills haven't been moving, all they have to do is look in the mirror.

NJ: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., mentioned on July 23 that you were working on a possible response to the appropriations stalemate over the drilling issue.

Obey: I don't know what Steny was talking about. I have offered a number of suggestions to people on that subject. The problem you have with the drilling amendment is that [a ban on expanding offshore oil and gas drilling has] been in place for 10 years. That's a long-standing public policy. If you're going to make changes, you need to make changes that are drafted after you've had hearings, after you've had an examination. This is not something that's going to produce oil overnight. There's plenty of time to look at what needs to happen offshore.

My feet are not planted in cement on that issue, but I want to know that we're going to go through an orderly process that gives all of the stakeholders an opportunity to make certain their interests are represented if we're going to move to a different consensus. That kind of action shouldn't take place on an appropriations bill. It should happen by the committees that have the expertise. And with all due respect to Appropriations egos, we don't know everything about every issue. And so the venue for that debate is much more appropriately the authorizing committees.

NJ: Some committee Republicans complain that the panel's traditional bipartisanship is waning.

Obey: And I've just told you why. When we were in the majority [previously], I chaired [the Foreign Operations subcommittee] for 10 years. My ranking member was Jack Kemp, then my ranking member was Mickey Edwards--he was the head of the conservative caucus in the Republican caucus--then my ranking member was Bob Livingston. I got along damn well with all of them. When the majority switched, and they ran the show, Livingston took over this desk. I left him a bottle of scotch because we're good friends.

The problem is that when Livingston left, the Republican leadership decided that they were going to write most of what happened in the Appropriations Committee. Tom DeLay continued as a member of the Appropriations Committee and tried to dictate committee action from his office as majority leader. And that's when things began to erode.

When you turn the appropriations process into a three-ring circus, as they've tried to do this year, it's not the Appropriations Committee that's become more partisan. It's the Republican minority--with the [Jeb] Hensarlings and the other juveniles. I didn't call them that, [columnist] E.J. Dionne called them that, juveniles. When they harass their own caucus members and demand a more partisan result, and when I go to Jerry Lewis and say, "Jerry, why don't we try to work out a bipartisan allocation," and he responds, "You've got to be kidding," you know, I can read the signals.

NJ: You've complained about President Bush's governing style and his reliance on the veto pen.

Obey: Let me tell you a story so that you understand why I'm so frustrated with Bush. I thought when Bush came into office, he seemed to have a good sense of humor and I thought he'd be a decent person to work with. And then came 9/11. And after 9/11, we got hit with anthrax [on Capitol Hill]. So I called [Republican] Bill Young, who was then the chairman of the committee--and we're good friends--and I said, "Bill, as long as we can't get into our office, why don't we do something useful with our time." So we went around to all the security agencies and we asked all of those people what they needed immediately. Not long term, what the hell was their most urgent need.

They put together a list. And we culled it. And the staff culled it some more. They finally brought it to us, and they said, "Well, this is as far as we can cut it." And then we said, "OK, now cut it in half so there's no crap in here." And then we took it to the White House. Bill Young and I expected that we would sit down at the White House, see which items the White House would be comfortable with, and that we would simply offer it as a bipartisan amendment to the supplemental [funding bill that was crafted in response to the terrorist attacks].

We walked in, sat down. Bush came in. And before anybody said anything, he simply said, "Well, I understand some of you want to spend more money than I do on homeland security.... You need to know that if you appropriate a dollar more than I've asked for, I'll veto the bill. Now, I've got time for four or five comments and then I'm out of here." Bush was like a strutting popinjay. And he was Mr. Muscles. And it was his way or no way.

I walked out of the room, and I turned to [House Democratic Leader] Dick Gephardt and I said, "Dick, that man is the biggest national security risk in the country because he doesn't know what he doesn't know and his staff won't tell him."

NJ: Are you concerned about saddling the next president with this year's leftover appropriations bills?

Obey: My preference would be to work things out. But if you don't have adults in the White House who will negotiate and compromise, what do you do? If we can't get a deal with him, then we will have to be willing to live with a continuing resolution until we have a new president who will compromise. I would be willing to compromise with the White House, split the difference right down the middle, right now, on virtually all these issues. But they won't do it, so what we're simply doing is facing the inevitable. I do not believe it will take very long at all for a Democratic Congress in the next session to reach agreement on appropriations until the end of the year.

NJ: If Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wins the presidency, he has pledged to freeze discretionary spending.

Obey: If McCain wins, then [conservatives] win. If McCain wins, they get their budgets. McCain's budgets are virtually identical to Bush's. That's one of the things that's at stake in this election. He has a very different set of budget priorities than Barack Obama and the American people. Washington isn't going to decide it. The American people will decide this.

This article appears in the August 2, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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