House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., has put much of the appropriations process on hold. The first of possibly only two fiscal 2009 appropriations bills was slated to hit the House floor this week. Work on the 12 annual spending measures has slowed 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-spoken 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 longstanding 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 this interview appear in the Aug. 2 issue of National Journal.
NJ: You just got back from Iraq. Let's start with your impressions of the situation there.
Obey: I didn't go there to have another of the ad nauseam debates on Iraq. I went there for two reasons. First of all, because I wanted to eyeball that embassy myself. And secondly, because based on my experience of the first Gulf War, a hell of a lot of those soldiers are going to come back with health problems, and I just wanted to get my own impression of what that situation was.
What concerns me about the embassy is not the way it's going to be used now -- they're moving in over this week. They need to get out of that palace. Not only is it a bad symbol for us to be in the palace, but it's a misnomer, because it's a dump, and those people are living in lousy living conditions. But my concern about the embassy is that it is so huge -- it's 10 times as large as the average embassy -- and if you've got something you use it. And my concern is that even after we return to normalcy in Iraq, if we ever do, there will still be a very large temptation to have a much larger footprint in Iraq than we should. And I think there will be a temptation to run a lot of things out of that embassy just because it's so big and so new and so convenient. And I think that would be a mistake, because I think that if we're going to recover to any degree from our misadventure there, we need to have as small a footprint as possible.
Secondly, when you fly over Baghdad -- I mean, you could be at 10,000 feet, and it's hard as hell to see the ground because of the dust in the air. I have no doubt that all kinds of soldiers are going to be having respiratory problems, and they will get worse as they get home, as their bodies react over time. So I think it's awfully important to remember that these troops are going to require a lot of baseline exams, and they're going to require a lot of health care in the future, and we have to be prepared to do that, not just financially but institutionally as well.
Thirdly, with respect to the war itself, I think the developments of the past few weeks demonstrate that we have not been at all out of line when we have been asking for some kind of a timeline for winding down our participation in that war. If you take a look, we've tried a variety of different approaches, the latest being simply to request that the president -- in return for getting the money that he asked for -- that the president agree that that request comes in the context of a policy that will set as a goal getting out of there by X date, and you can debate -- I'm not going to quibble about whether it's three months or six months longer or shorter than somebody else's time frame. Events will determine that to some degree, but I think that [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki's statement makes quite clear that there are advantages to us in setting a goal.
I am very suspicious that one of the reasons the administration resisted setting even a goal as opposed to a firm timeline is that I think they were simply afraid that, politically, if they didn't meet the goal, they'd get jumped on. I think that's a pretty silly reason to adopt a posture. And now that the administration itself is talking about a timeline horizon -- if you can tell me what the difference is between a timeline horizon and a timeline with a goal, I would sure like to know what it is -- I'm even more comfortable now than I was before I left with the position that we've taken, especially given the fact that I've thought that from the beginning this was just about the dumbest foreign policy mistake in American history.
NJ: So what is the next move for Congress in terms of dealing with Iraq?
Obey: There isn't a next move for Congress. I mean, the next move has to come from the president. I was here through Vietnam, I've been here through this. I know that -- I mean, in Vietnam, the Congress did not finally pass the first amendment that really meant something, we didn't pass that until our troops were out and we were down to about 500 troops. What has to happen is, you have to elect a president who recognizes, number one, this was a mistake; number two, we need to extricate ourselves as quickly as we can within reason so that we reduce our target value for our enemies, and so that we can convince people in that region that we don't intend to be an occupying power forever. And let's not kid ourselves. We are not simply in a war. We are conducting an occupation of a country that we conquered under false pretenses.
NJ: The focus of your trip on the embassy and on the veterans' costs points to the fact there will be ongoing costs to this war despite all the talk of a potential peace dividend once we pull out. Do you see this continuing to be a drain of hundreds of billions of dollars on the federal budget?
Obey: I think this war has not only ruined this administration, it's ruined the first two years of the next one, because 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, and it's probably going to get even worse. 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.
I was at CIA headquarters watching those Predator aircraft transmit the pictures back to Langley when they were using those Predators to look for [Osama] bin Laden. And I heard what the CIA operatives out there said about the administration's decision to shift half our surveillance assets to Iraq to get ready for the war. They were mad as hell, because they thought it was crippling their opportunity to get bin Laden. When we went in there, we needed to go in there hard, quick, and we needed to sustain what we were doing until we got rid of the problem. Instead, we did a quick down-and-dirty entrance, and then within a few months we diverted our resources to a much less important theater. So now we've seen Afghanistan continue to erode. Pakistan is continuing to erode. In my view, you can't fix Afghanistan unless you can stabilize Pakistan, and I think Pakistan is headed in the wrong direction.
NJ: So do we still have a second chance to fix that situation?
Obey: I think that's an open question. There's an old saying: If you strike the king, kill it. And we didn't. What we did was to go in, stir things up, get people identified with us, and then the effort sort of sagged because of Iraq. There was no clear sustained policy in Afghanistan, and as a result, I think we're in danger of having happen to us the same thing that happened to the Russians.
I was in Russia when they were in Afghanistan. You could see how that morass had destroyed the morale of their top military leadership, of their political leadership. They would admit to me that it's very hard for us to explain to grandmothers why these bodies keep coming home.
The terrain is tough, the social networks are tough, and we just were not prepared to sustain what the administration began, largely because they got diverted to what they said was going to be a quick, easy, down-and-dirty military triumph. I mean, my God, the way they talked about it, they talked about it as though it was going to be Grenada. Any idiot knew that we could win the war. If you're spending half a trillion dollars a year on your defense budget and your opponent is spending just a tiny fraction of that, I think it's safe to say you're going to win the war militarily. But we weren't prepared with a plan that would secure the place afterwards. [Former Army Chief of Staff Eric] Shinseki warned everybody about that, but the know-it-all civilians at the Pentagon -- [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and company -- they ignored it. The hotshots knew better.
NJ: So we can't sustain the campaign there?
Obey: No, I said it's an open question. You can sustain a campaign. The question is, is it going to be successful? When we went into Afghanistan, we needed to go in hard and strong and get it done. Instead, we hit the gas pedal for a couple months, and then we let up. And that reassured all of our enemies that they could hang on, they wouldn't have to deal, they wouldn't have to compromise, that they could burrow in and use their buddies in Pakistan to help shield them. As a result, we're in a situation that threatens to be a bigger mess than Iraq.
NJ: The last time a Democratic president took over -- when President Clinton faced a big deficit and a foundering economy -- he proposed a big deficit reduction package as a way to deal with that. Do you see parallels to that time?
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 over time. 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.
So I would start with Henry Ford. Scott Lilly over at the Center for American Progress, who used to be my staff director, is in the process of producing a paper on the economy -- how we got this way. Essentially, what happened was this: When Henry Ford decided he was going to mass-produce cars, what's the first thing he did? The first thing he did was to raise the wages of his workers to five bucks a day. He did that not because he was altruistic, he did that because he knew that you had to pay people good wages in order to get quality workers. Secondly, he knew that you had to create the ability for consumers to actually buy things. The economy doesn't function if people can't buy things, if they can't afford to. And so he took the action that most businessmen should have taken in stimulating the ability of consumers to afford to buy whatever is produced. That example was not followed by a hell of a lot of people.
If you look at what happened from 1920 to 1929, workers' productivity went up by 65 percent in the economy, but workers' wages in real terms went down by 9 percent. So they got zip out of their efforts. If you take a look at what's happening today, precisely the same thing is happening. It used to be that, back to back in the '50s and the '60s, workers got about 70 percent of the benefit of their productivity increases, that showed up in their pockets. Not true any more. They get table scraps. If you take a look at what -- people will just say, "Oh, it's just the forces of globalization that lead to this income inequality." It's sort of like the weather. That's John McCain's approach to economics, and [former McCain adviser] Phil Gramm's -- it's sort of like the weather, there isn't much you can do about it, maybe we toss in a little drib or drab of training -- and that's about all they say.
Well, it's not true. Yes, globalization had a significant impact. But there were conscious government decisions that transferred a huge amount of national wealth up the income scale. If you take a look at what happened, the top one-hundredth of 1 percent -- that's 15,000 very lucky families -- they've had their income grow on average from 15 million to 29 million bucks a year -- just since 2002. Now, that ain't bad. That's a 95 percent increase in their household income. If you take a look at the top one-tenth of 1 percent instead of the top one-hundredth of 1 percent, there they went up an average of from 2.3 million to 3.7 million bucks. That's still an increase of 63 percent. If you take a look at the top 1 percent, rather than one-tenth or one hundredth, the top 1 percent on average, they went up from $515,000 to $680,000. That's still a 32 percent increase. And in fact the top 10 percent, if you lump them all together and compare what the top 10 percent by way of income growth versus everybody else, the top 10 percent got 95 percent of the income growth in this country since 2002. The other 133 million families got 4.7 percent. So they got the scraps of table scraps.
And so as a result, the top 10 percent [of income earners] today is 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. And don't you think that there might just be some connection between that fact and the fact that you've got almost 40 million people who cannot afford to buy health insurance? You got millions of families who cannot afford to send their kids to college, and if they do, they wind up with such an astronomical debt that it scares the hell out of them.
You know, there are consequences when you transfer that much money up the income scale to the very wealthiest people. It means that 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." To me, 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 just -- that's not where I come from.
NJ: In your book, you mentioned a "New New Deal" for workers. Can you talk about what sorts of policy changes might redistribute that wealth?
Obey: [House Financial Services Chairman] Barney Frank and I have the same basic position on trade. Barney has given speeches to the business community, and so have I, in which we essentially say, look, if you guys want the benefit of trade agreements that give you an advantage or that stabilize your ability to compete in other parts of the world, then recognize that you have got to support the investments that are going to be necessary to cushion the effect of globalization on average workers in this country.
That means that you've got to rebuild the safety net, and you've got to give people other opportunities to get ahead in life. The way you do that, in my view, is first of all to recognize that everybody has a basic human right to health care. It is not a privilege. It is a God-given right as far as I'm concerned. I think we've got to construct a health care system that people can afford and that covers everybody.
Secondly, we've got to start meaning it when we hold up our hands for the Pledge of Allegiance and talk about liberty and justice for all. Because we don't deliver liberty and justice for all. We deliver liberty and justice for a lot of people, maybe for most people, but sure as hell not for all -- as long as it's become more difficult for black and Hispanic kids to afford college education today than it was five or six years ago. When you see that maximum Pell grants, when they first started, paid for almost 70 percent of the cost of education and today it's paying for less than half of that, who are we kidding when we say that we have equal opportunity and we believe in equal opportunity for education. [Public television commentator] Bill Moyers said the job for government is to even the starting line for people who are equal in humanity but not equal in resources. And I think that's a pretty damn good definition of what government is supposed to be.
To me, government needs to be strong enough to keep the big boys honest and to see that the pie is divvied up in a way that doesn't just leave a hell of a lot of people on the outside looking in the restaurant window not being able to afford to come in and buy a meal.
So if you put these issues in context, then you know that what we have done on appropriations, on the discretionary side, what we have done on tax policy the last 10 years has not only been immoral, it has been counterproductive in terms of producing a strong economy. When you provide over a trillion dollars in tax cuts and they are paid for with borrowed money, and then a huge percentage of those tax cuts go to the wealthiest people in society, when this year we are being told by the White House that we absolutely must borrow $51 billion to pay for tax cuts for millionaires but, oh, we can't afford to expand the low-income heating assistance program or we can't afford to expand the GI Bill benefits -- education benefits for the GI Bill.... The administration initially resisted the Webb bill; it finally came around after they saw they would have their heads handed to them politically if they didn't buy into it.
If you look at all of these deficits, then you see that we have a deficit in fairness and a deficit in morality when it comes to the economic policies that we've been following. And that produces a deficit in the ability of the economy to function for everybody, and that isn't just a moral issue -- that's a hard-nosed economic issue.
NJ: What should Congress do first next January?
Obey: I don't want to get into sequence because it depends on what opportunities present themselves first, and it depends how well the incoming administration is going to be organized in different areas.
But the menu is pretty clear. 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. If you take a look at the history of this country since 1946, you will see that debt as a percentage of GDP -- at the end of World War II, it was about 126 percent of annual GDP. It dropped -- regardless of whether we had a Republican or Democratic president -- it kept dropping until the mid '70s. It got down to about 25 percent of our annual national income. Then we got the energy shock that hit us under [President] Ford, and that hit again under [President] Carter, so the debt started to go up.
I remember [former Federal Reserve Chairman] Paul Volcker went to 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 bucks." 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 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. And so will having the discipline to say, "Well, we may not be able to afford these supersized tax cuts for the highest-income people in this country so long as we've got these other obligations." That's why, for instance, [Pennsylvania Democratic Rep.] Jack Murtha and I and [Massachusetts Democratic Rep.] Jim McGovern -- that's why we offered up a war surtax. We didn't expect to pass it, but we were trying to make the point that there's no sense of shared sacrifice in this country and the only people being asked to sacrifice are the military. They do two or three tours in Iraq, or in the case of a relative of mine, two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and everybody else is asked to go shopping and take a tax cut. I think most people in that top 1 percent would prefer that we follow fiscal policies that make sense than give them a huge tax cut.
So you have to deal with this debt-deficit problem by making changes in the amount of money that you shovel out the door by way of tax cuts for the top 10 percent of people in the country, and you also have got to look for ways to squeeze nonessential spending. That's one of the reasons that I've been so vociferous about the war, because we aren't going to eliminate the costs of that sucker very fast, but we sure as hell could bring it down. And that could help.
And then at the same time we've got to decide: Where do we want this country to be in 10 years in terms of our infrastructure, in terms of our education system, in terms of our health care system, in terms of science? When I'm sitting in Kuwait, and I read stories about how Americans are going to Third World countries to get stem cell treatment, and when I see that China is running a trade deficit with the rest of the world but a trade surplus with us, I would say we've got a hell of a lot of work to do on everything ranging from scientific research to defending our own interests at the trade bargaining table. That simply hasn't happened in the last 10 years.
Infrastructure. We've got -- [investment banker] Felix Rohatyn and others have for years been trying to convince people that we need a vast modernization of our infrastructure.
Take a look at the airline industry. Lufthansa alone spends more money on capital expenditures than the three biggest American airlines combined. We do not have an airline industry any more. We do not have airline service. You cannot call it service if it's unreliable.
Our airline service is so incredibly unreliable. Hell, about one of every four flights I take is canceled. Nine times in a row last year I didn't get to where I was going because of cancellations and other problems. If you take a look at the cost -- the dumbest thing I ever did was to vote for airline deregulation. What that did was to set up each airline so that the only way they could make a profit was by racing their competitors to the bottom in terms of what they paid their pilots, in terms of what they paid their machinists, in terms of what they paid their people on the curb. Hell, baggage -- most of them are contracting that out these days. So we've got an industry that is racing to the bottom, and at the same time they've got their hand out because of what's happening to them on energy costs. But even if you didn't have the energy problem, you still would have a basically unstable airline industry.
If I had my way, I'd re-regulate the airlines as public utilities, guarantee them a reasonable profit and require them to serve virtually every airport in the country that they've been serving the last five years unless they get agreement from a regulatory authority to withdraw or reduce service in those areas. Because right now, if you don't do something drastic, rural America is going to be out to lunch when it comes to airline service. And if they don't have decent airline service, it's harder than hell for them to keep businesses they have. It's harder to attract new ones. That just builds another bias into the system against small-town America. And I come from small-town America.
NJ: Shifting just a little bit, the only time that all 12 appropriations bills have been passed and presented to the president by the end of the fiscal year since 1948 was in 1994 [when Obey was chairman]. Everybody always talks about the appropriations process being broken. Do you think it 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. 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 302 allocation between the subcommittees, so we can at least agree how much for Interior, how much for Ag, how much for Defense, et cetera, et cetera." He was delighted. That was the first and only time in the history of the Budget Act that that was done. And the second thing I did was sit down with the administration and try to work out what they would buy into. 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.
In the last year that we were in the minority, I invite you to compare the way we behaved with the way the Repubs are behaving today in the House. [In 2006] I was the ranking minority member and we wanted to get votes -- basically we differed with the Republicans on how tightly they were squeezing education, health and science, largely, and so we wanted to be able to get votes on those issues. Under the way the Budget Act works, we couldn't get votes on those issues unless we stood on our head. So we tried to get votes on those issues. That was an appropriations question, it was a financial question, simply a question of dollar amounts. That was our demand. We worked to pass every appropriation bill, even though we opposed the bills. We made our point on funding levels, and then I worked hand-in-glove with the Republican majority to squeeze down the number of amendments so you weren't dilly-dallying on the floor. We worked to get time limits on the amendments. We worked with them procedurally and helped them to get every bill through the system, not because I was idealistic but because I thought the minority has a right to make its point and the majority has a right to make law. That's the way the system works. So long as the record was clear as to where we stood, we were willing to cooperate, and we did.
In contrast, take a look at what the Repubs did when we took over [in 2007]. They engaged in filibuster by amendment. They spent 68 percent more time on the floor with amendments than we took. When we were in the minority, the number of amendments offered to appropriations bills was 50-50 by the majority and the minority. When we took over, they offered so many damned amendments, and they were trivial -- 1 percent, one-half percent, one-quarter of a percent [across-the-board cuts] -- they just did it to drag out the system. They wanted to prevent us from getting our work done. So it took us an extra month to get the bills out of the House last year because of that. 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. And there's no point in having needless partisan wrangling on vehicles that are going nowhere. So 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. So the Republicans squawked because on the [2008 war funding] supplemental, we didn't follow what they considered to be regular order because we essentially took a conference report and ping-ponged the amendments back and forth between the [House and the] Senate. As a practical matter, that was the only way that we could produce a compromise result, because a majority of our party was opposed to the war, and they wanted an opportunity to express that opposition without being tied to other issues. And a majority of our party also wanted to be able to vote for the domestic pieces of the bill, especially including the Webb bill, and a lot of Republicans did too.
So we followed the one procedure that would enable both sides to be able to cast their votes in a way that didn't shut down the government. In the end, that process was good enough for the White House, but the Republicans in the House raised hell about it, and [Appropriations Committee Ranking Republican] 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 appropriation bill for the labor, health and education bill. He said the argument was [offshore 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.
The process isn't broken; what is broken is the recognition by the minority that you need to make your political points or your substantive points in a way which still facilitates the ability of the institution to get its work done. So we will produce whatever process we have to produce in order to keep the government functioning. But we're not going to put people through -- I come from dairy country. I don't believe in chewing the cud 50 times.
NJ: On [July 23], Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, in his pen-and-pad with reporters, mentioned that you were working on moving the process forward -- I guess he was referring to the [military construction and veterans bill] -- but he also mentioned a possible response to the Peterson amendment [on offshore drilling].
Obey: I don't know what Steny was talking about. When I met with the leadership yesterday we talked about -- I have offered a number of suggestions to people on that subject, but that's not my main goal. What I've told people from the beginning is that I would at least like to have the defense bill and the [military construction and veterans] bill out of here before September.
We're not going to make it on defense because there are so many issues hanging around, not the least of which is the supplemental itself took so long it slowed the [Defense] subcommittee down.
The problem you have with the drilling amendment is that it's been in place for 10 years. That's a longstanding 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. I mean, technology has changed a hell of a lot in 10 years. One, we need to know about that before we make a policy change. This is not something that's going to produce oil overnight. Releasing [Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil] will. So what we've tried to do is to do some things which would have some immediate effect on the price of oil.
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 of the Republicans on the committee complain that the traditional bipartisanship of the committee is suffering or waning.
Obey: And I've just told you why. I have had a damn good relationship -- when we were in the majority [the previous time], 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. And we had a very good relationship when he was committee chair.
The problem is that [former Majority Leader] Tom DeLay, when Livingston left -- and I had a good relationship with [former Appropriations chairman] Bill Young -- but 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, as -- I didn't call them that, [columnist] E.J. Dionne called them that, juveniles -- but 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 302 allocation," and he responds, "You've got to be kidding," you know, I can read the signals.
NJ: You've talked about President Bush's governing style and his reliance on the veto pen and governing by one-third plus one [House votes to uphold vetoes]. But this year we've seen a number of examples where congressional Democrats have managed to get things they wanted over the White House's objections. So do you see a softening in his ability to maintain that governing style?
Obey: No, he is still running things pretty much on the my-way-or-no-way track. What's changed is that Republicans are becoming more and more terrified of what's happening in this election. And so a few of them have ceased to be knee-jerk lemmings. So the White house, I think, recognizes that there are times when they don't have the votes any more. They didn't back off on the Webb amendment until Senator [John] Warner and other Republican senators demonstrated that they were going to stick with Webb, not McCain, on that issue. So the White House then began to show some recognition of reality.
But let me tell you a story so that you understand why I'm so frustrated with Bush. I liked his father. I thought his father wanted to work with people on both sides of the aisle. And 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]. And so I called 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 -- NSA, CIA, DoD, FBI, HHS, CDC, you name it. And we asked all of those people what they needed immediately -- not long-term -- what the hell was their most urgent need. And 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 measure responding to the terrorist attacks]. We walked in and 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." He said, "Mitch Daniels here from OMB tells me that we've asked for more than enough money. And so 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." Bob Byrd told him what he thought of that attitude. Ted Stevens said, "Mr. President, we're not trying to have a fight here. We've already agreed we'll knock anything off the list that you don't want, but this stuff needs to be done." Bill Young said, "Mr. President, please don't talk veto. We're not here in that moment." But Bush was like a strutting popinjay. And he was Mr. Muscles. And it was his way or no way.
And I walked out of the room and I turned to [Minority 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." The reason I said that was because when it was my turn to talk, I said to him, "Mr. President, I've been coming down here for 30 years. You're the first guy who's ever told me that your mind was closed before the subject was even open." And I said, "I'm going to ask you four questions about federal installations that your own security people have told me are gravely at risk of terrorist attack. Their words, not mine." And I asked him -- one of them involved a facility in Texas -- and he gave no evidence that he'd been briefed on any of them. I didn't expect him to. He's busy, for God sake. But that chip on the shoulder -- "my way, I know better" -- it demonstrated to me that this guy was going to govern by dividing rather than uniting.
And then the next year he held a press conference bragging about the fact that we had set up, or that the Customs Department had set up, a new system to inspect containerized cargo at the port of shipment rather than at the port of entry. And then he pocket-vetoed the money to make it happen -- after he'd held a press conference bragging about it. To me, it just indicated an obstreperousness that I've never seen in any president.
And that's why this country is so demoralized, because people don't expect to agree with presidents all of the time but they sure as hell expect presidents are going to try to unite people rather than divide them. And Bush's whole style, thanks to Karl Rove, has been to divide the country, exploit wedge issues and govern from a very narrow base. What that means is you may win the ballgame for a while, but if there's no consensus, then there is no continuity in the end, because you keep yinging and yanging from one extreme to another. And that's where he's left the country right now -- on Iraq, on his budget, on energy, the whole kit and caboodle.
NJ: Since the next president is going to have so much to deal with, I wonder if you're concerned about saddling the next president with having to deal with this year's appropriations as an early order of business.
Obey: No. I mean, that's not my preference. 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?
He gives us two choices. We can either capitulate and adopt his budget exactly as he sent it down, or we can insist on exercising the power of the purse to a modest degree. And that's what we're trying to do. The budget resolution -- the whole purpose of creating the Budget Act was to create a ceiling under which the Congress had to operate on budgets. The president does not have a veto on the budget resolution. The Congress under the Budget Act is supposed to determine what levels of spending and revenues they think are appropriate. And once you adopt that resolution, then so long as the committees abide by that resolution, they're supposed to have free and easy access to the legislative process. What Bush is trying to do by insisting that we abide by his budget, period -- he's trying to, in effect, gain the right to veto the budget resolution. That would be a huge additional transfer of power to the executive branch. And there's no way in God's green earth that any rational Congress would do that. So our choice is to either live exactly with Bush's budget or try to do something different.
I'm not going to support a budget which cuts 50 percent -- well, last year he tried to cut 50 percent out of vocational education -- this year he tried to eliminate it. I've never had anybody in my life come up to me and say, "Obey, why don't you turkeys get your act together and cut cancer research." And yet that's what the president and the previous Congress did. They cut over 900 grants out of the National Institutes of Health. For Alzheimer's, for cancer, you name it. And we're just not going to do that.
And we're not going to eliminate the funding that helps train medical personnel in children's health issues at children's hospitals. We're just not going to eliminate that program. We're not going to cut low-income heating assistance at a time of $140-oil, we're not going to cut low-income heating assistance by 20 percent as the president wants us to do.
So 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. Now, do I like the fact that we'll have leftover work? No. But when the only option is to throw out everything that we believe in -- 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 Senator McCain wins, he's pledged to freeze discretionary spending.
Obey: If McCain wins, then they 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. The American people will decide this. Washington isn't going to decide it. The American people will decide it. If you take a look at public polling, virtually every issue that we're confronting in these appropriations bills, the public is on our side. They don't want to cut every education program except Pell grants and work study, as the president tried to do last year, and he's tried to do almost the same thing this year. They want us to meet these basic obligations.
What's at stake isn't this year. What's at stake is what the hell do you think this country's going to look like in 10 years, and what investments do you have to make in order to get ready for it? How many more kids are going to be knocking on college doors? How many more cars are going to be on the road? How much more carbon burden is going to be laid on the atmosphere? With an aging population, how many more people are going to be facing diabetes and cancer and other chronic diseases? So that's what we're trying to get ready for.
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