Friday, May 14, 2010

Farewell, Congressman Obey

By Marc Korman.

Last week, Wisconsin Congressman David Obey decided to pack it in and retire. Although not a Marylander, Obey is one of my favorite Members of Congress and should be praised for a lifetime of progressive leadership.

I was first exposed to Congressman Obey as a Congressional staffer when he was the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee. The Ranking Member is the top person on the committee from the minority party. They have a tricky job. They need to fight for their priorities, but if they have any institutional pride they also need to make sure legislation proceeds. As Ranking Member, Obey would lead the fight against reckless Republican funding bills which did not support priorities such as healthcare, education, and the environment. Particularly with regards to education, Obey fought to ensure that Congressional Republicans met the promise President Bush made to increase federal funding for education in exchange for the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Too often, Obey lost those important battles when good amendments to subpar bills did not pass. He was then left with a choice of opposing the funding bills entirely or holding his nose to make sure Congress kept working. In most cases, barring a truly outrageous act by the Republicans, Obey would support the legislation to keep the process going and prevent the possibility of a government shutdown. When Democrats took the majority in 2007 and Obey returned to the chairmanship, I think he was shocked to find that the now minority Republicans did not act the same way he had. They were perfectly happy to stop the appropriations process in its tracks, despite funding the government being Congress’ most fundamental purpose.

But Obey’s career stretches far beyond his leadership on the Appropriations Committee. Although he is now considered a Congressional old bull, he was viewed as a young progressive reformer for most of his career, first in the Wisconsin state house and then as a Congressman (he won the special election to replace Melvin Laird, who was appointed Defense Secretary by President Nixon). He actually did not rise to his committee leadership role through the old fashioned method of seniority, but leapfrogged over longer serving members with the help of other progressives, such as then rank and file Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

After entering Congress in 1969, Obey became a leader in the Democratic Study Group (DSG). Today, Congress seems dominated by the conservative (I know, this is redundant) Republican Study Group, the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, and the moderate New Democrats. But from the 60s through the 80s the DSG was a progressive rallying point for House Democrats seeking to counter not just Republicans, but the conservative Southerners who dominated the Democratic Party. Through the DSG and his perch on Appropriations, Obey fought for progressive priorities. The role was particularly important during the Reagan years where Obey helped provide some of the analytical rebuttal to Reagan’s domestic spending budget cuts.

Obey has also been more important than many people realize to our own community. Without Obey, the Metro system may have never been built. In the early 1970s, senior Appropriations Committee member Bill Natcher of Kentucky withheld the federal share of Metro construction funds pending the completion of an additional bridge from Arlington to Georgetown. There was massive resistance to the bridge including from the DC government, but Natcher wanted it and threatened to kill Metro to get it. Obey helped organize other junior Appropriations Committee members in support of the Metro, succeeding in amending legislation on the House floor to include Metro funds and getting it included in the eventual conference report. With the federal funds starting to flow, Metro construction began.

Republicans seem eager to vilify Obey for his temper and his role in the 2009 stimulus bill. I think history will record these as positives for Obey. His temper flares, that’s for sure, but always for a just cause. The stimulus bill, in my view, has done much to not only keep our economy from collapse but in filling some of the deep holes left by Bush’s budgets, which were large but did not set appropriate priorities when it came to healthcare, education, and the environment.

I will miss Congressman Obey and hope that whoever succeeds him both as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee and in the 7th Congressional District of Wisconsin lives up to his leadership example.

If you want to learn more about Congressman Obey and Wisconsin politics (an impressive hotbed of progressive leadership that has included Senators Bob La Follette Sr. and Jr., Gaylord Nelson, Bill Proxmire, and Russ Feingold), I recommend giving Obey’s autobiography, Raising Hell for Justice, a read.