Most Americans have never heard of David Obey, but in Washington, where he chairs the House Appropriations committee, he’s the man to see. He holds the congressional purse strings, overseeing the dispersal of funds for everything from the Iraq War to those much-disparaged earmarks, the lifeblood of legislators. A serious and passionate legislator, his decision to retire at the end of this term is evoking yet another round of soul-searching on Capitol Hill about the tenor of American politics.
In a nostalgic summing up of his accomplishments before a roomful of supporters on Wednesday, Obey lamented the “coarsening” of the political profession to which he devoted almost his entire adult life, along with his frustration at dealing with a news media transformed in ways he said are “nothing short of a national catastrophe.” Obey’s remarks coincided with the announcement that NEWSWEEK is for sale, the result of an understandable business decision by The Washington Post, which can no longer sustain further losses as NEWSWEEK finds its footing in the new media environment.
Instead of hanging on to a career that had likely seen better days, Obey, to his credit, is going out gracefully, a rarity in politics. Liberals in particular will miss him as someone who brought both passion and ideological consistency to the fight. Crowned “Mount Obey” by Politico for his furious outbursts at those who challenged him, Obey got into a shoving match on the House floor with former Republican whip Tom DeLay. He could be just as harsh with Democrats, especially when they questioned his antiwar credentials.
In a hallway encounter that made him a star on You Tube, Obey lost his patience with the mother of a Marine who pressed him on why he declined to use his position as chair of Appropriations to end the war by cutting off funding for the troops in Iraq. He blasted her and other liberals as “idiot Democrats” who didn’t understand the political intricacies of what he was doing, showing callous disregard for a concerned citizen (he later apologized).
Speaking his mind is what Obey has done throughout his career, and he makes no apology for that, offering a parting shot at the Senate during his discursive farewell remarks, saying that “there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate to confused and angry and frustrated constituents.” The remark, meant partly as a joke, reflects the resentment House members feel toward the Senate for the way it dithers on difficult votes, making health-care reform a lot harder than it needed to be and leaving the House potentially holding the bag on controversial cap-and-trade energy legislation.
Obey bristled at a question suggesting he was leaving because he couldn’t win in November. “Let me put it this way—I have won 25 elections,” he said. “Does anybody really think I don’t know how to win another one? Or, for that matter, has anyone ever seen me walk away from a fight in my life? The fact is there isn’t a chance of a snowball in Hades of that progressive congressional district electing someone who is a poor imitation of George Bush’s policies on a bad day.”
His Wisconsin district is rated as “leaning Democratic,” but Obey would have had to work hard to overcome a challenge from Republican Sean Duffy , a 38-year-old local district attorney with star appeal who once appeared on MTV’s The Real World. Just as the media are changing, politics are rushing headlong into the 21st century, with Obey epitomizing the best of an old model of legislator at a time when voters angry at Washington are looking for something new.
Obey said he’d been thinking about retirement since the 2000 election, but after an unsatisfactory meeting with President Bush, determined that he would stay in Congress long enough to outlast him. Repelled by Bush’s tax policies, he kept two signs visible in his office for all those seeking appropriations. The first asked, “If what you want costs money, are you willing to go home and tell your friends that we need to cut back on the size of the president’s tax cuts so there is room for it in the budget?” The second said, “Is there anything you want me to do for somebody else that is more important than whatever it is you want me to do for you?”
It’s not clear that Obey’s moral charge had any effect; spending, earmarks, and the budget deficit ballooned on Bush’s watch. Defending the practice of having members of Congress allocate money for pet projects, Obey noted that he had funneled money to setting up needed dental clinics, one of the many items on his ledger of accomplishments that he is most proud of. But, at 71, he’s beginning to hear the bell toll, and after a long and distinguished career, he’s had enough.