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Obey Looks Back On Storied Career Obey Looks Back On Storied Career

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APPRECIATION

Obey Looks Back On Storied Career

The Appropriations Committee Chairman Has Always Been Hard To Ignore

As he began his 20-minute statement announcing his retirement early Wednesday afternoon, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey warned, "This will be a longer statement than the press would like." He got that right.

 

But Obey had a lot to say, much of which fell beyond the interests of the assembled reporters and their instant-gratification editors. He wanted to describe his extraordinary 41-year career in Congress. That inevitably took time.

Unlike modern, media-savvy politicians, Obey doesn't seek to be all things to all people. He hasn't been reluctant to stake out a position on the outer limits of a topic such as economic fairness or good governance and keep pressing his rhetorical point decades later. But while staying true to his calling as a vigorous advocate, he has also worked effectively as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, where deal-cutting skills are in high demand -- sometimes on a bipartisan basis, but often not.

Love him or loathe him -- and there have been plenty on each side -- Obey has been hard to ignore on Capitol Hill. In fact, a good case can be made that he has been the most versatile advocate and effective lawmaker of the past four decades -- at least, on the House side. If he had a match in the Senate, it might have been the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who shared Obey's occasional penchant for raising his voice to make a point.

 

In announcing his retirement, Obey highlighted many of his accomplishments but hardly all of them. Perhaps mindful that many in his audience were not yet born then, he barely touched on his first decade in the House, which might have been his most creative and sometimes wrenching.

In those days, he was a proud reformer from Wisconsin's progressive tradition. But even in the heyday of the post-Watergate reform era, when Obey took on several assignments to overhaul ethical rules and procedures, he ran into resistance from the congressional old guard. And he later complained that Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass., did not back him up.

"I felt that Tip had let me down -- especially because I believed I had been hurt with [reform opponents] precisely because I had carried the load Tip had asked me to carry on the ethics package" in 1977, Obey recounted in his 2007 memoir, Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive.

He encountered further resistance when he ran to chair the House Budget Committee in December 1980, which was a pivotal moment for Democrats to decide how to respond to the onslaught of the so-called Reagan Revolution. Obey lost narrowly to conservative Rep. James Jones, D-Okla., on the third ballot. He later complained that liberals were outmatched as House organizers and that O'Neill failed to lift a finger for him. That result "hurt personally for a few weeks," Obey said a year later.

 

That setback, in effect, marked the end of Obey's leadership ambitions. But it hardly stopped him. In a February 1982 National Journal profile of Obey by this author, Obey said, "You don't have to be a committee chairman to be happy or do what needs to be done.... I don't give two hoots if I have the chairmanship or a party leadership position. But I want the opportunity, as I have now, to deal with the issues that are important to the country and party."

Of course, Obey has done virtually all of that during the nearly three decades since then. He took on various chairmanships and left his mark at each.

At the Joint Economic Committee during the 1980s, he was an outspoken foe of President Reagan's domestic policies and articulated his case for an activist federal role.

For a decade starting in 1985, he chaired the Foreign Operations Subcommittee at Appropriations. Probably the most important work of the panel during that era was its historic role "in helping Eastern European countries to transition from communist authoritarianism to Western capitalist democracies after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union," Obey said in his retirement announcement.

In 1995, Obey settled in as the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee handling the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments. But Democrats were in the House minority for the next dozen years, which stifled Obey's options to significantly increase or reshape those programs as he had hoped. He also retained the top Democratic post on the full committee, which he secured in an early 1994 contest with a more senior but moderate Democrat after the death of committee chairman William Natcher, D-Ky.

His big moment finally came when Democrats regained the House majority in 2007 -- and especially when Obey could work with Democratic president Barack Obama starting in January 2009. Even before Obama was inaugurated, Obey unveiled the details of what was enacted a few weeks later as the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus measure.

That may have been Obey's most controversial legacy. As he stated on Wednesday, "My only apology is that it should have been larger, but it was the most that the system would bear at the time."

Republicans -- then and now -- were overwhelmingly opposed, and they contend that it failed to achieve its chief goal of stemming the rise in unemployment. Reacting to Obey's retirement announcement, the National Republican Congressional Committee's executive director gloated in an e-mail to GOP supporters, "The Architect of the Failed Stimulus has decided he cannot justify his votes in Congress to a district that has elected him for over 40 years."

Although he emphasized Wednesday that his mostly small-town northwest Wisconsin district will replace him with another Democrat, Obey seemed to concede that he faced political problems at home. "I think, frankly, that my district is ready for someone new to make a fresh start," he said.

Obey's political skills would have prevailed if had pursued re-election, said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. While voicing concern that "we progressives have very big shoes to fill" on both state and national issues, Baldwin added that part of Obey's legacy is that he has strengthened the "Wisconsin Idea" of the link between the campus and policymaking. That goal was first championed a century ago by progressive Republican leader Robert LaFollette, who served in both the House and Senate and as governor.

Like former House Rules Chairman Richard Bolling, D-Mo. -- a mid-20th-century House power broker whom Obey has cited as a legislative role model -- Obey's interest in trying to make the House work better was perhaps exceeded by his efforts to strengthen his own party's ability to make policy.

Although that challenge will continue after Obey has departed, he voiced pride that his House service lasted long enough for him to preside over the enactment of health reform early this year. "I have been waiting for that moment for 41 years, and its arrival -- finally -- made all the frustrations of public life worth it," he said Wednesday.

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