Losing David Obey
I rise to second E.J.’s ode of admiration for David Obey, one of Congress’s longtime liberal heroes and legislative titans, who announced today that he won’t seek re-election. As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and even before that one of its most influential members, Obey often shaped public policy out of the public spotlight. Not that he wasn’t outspoken (boy, was he ever), but he wielded the power of the purse in an arena that has never drawn the level of journalistic interest it should command.
For those who know Obey, it came as no surprise that Nancy Pelosi picked him to preside over the House in the final, climactic moments of its deliberations on health care earlier this year. No member of the House knew its rules better than he, and there was no one tougher and less susceptible to the Republicans’ last-minute grandstanding -- as his flat, firm put-down of an out-of-order amendment from GOP leader John Boehner made clear. For Obey, who’d championed the cause of universal health care since he was first elected in 1969, wielding the gavel as Congress finally enacted such a program had to be deeply gratifying.
Obey is one of the two old bulls of the Appropriations Committee who played key roles in Nancy Pelosi’s ascent to speaker. The other was John Murtha, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. Both Obey and Murtha were impressed by Pelosi’s skills soon after she came to Congress in 1987. “She was operational,” Obey told me back when I was profiling Pelosi half a decade ago. By that, he meant that she had a keen sense of how to cut the deals that enabled her legislative priorities to be enacted, and that meant she understood the political needs of her fellow members -- and possessed the requisite toughness to see those deals through. As Pelosi ascended within the Democratic caucus, Obey and Murtha helped her to win the support of members for whom her liberal politics were not reason enough to back her rise.
With Obey’s retirement and Murtha’s death, Pelosi has lost two key lieutenants. The other senior members who have been her counselors and confidantes and who championed her rise, like House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, tend to come from liberal districts much like Pelosi’s own (Miller’s is right across the Bay from hers).
Obey’s first election, in 1969, made news. The seat he won had long been held by Republican Melvin Laird, who left it to become Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense. Obey ran on an antiwar platform, and his election signaled the widespread weariness and growing disgust with the Vietnam War. Over the past year, he’s voiced similar dissatisfaction with Barack Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. With Charlie Rangel and Pete Stark, Obey is among the last remaining members of Congress to have initially won election running against our involvement in Vietnam, and, as such, Obey brought a unique perspective to the debate over the Afghan War. It is one of many reasons why this tough, seasoned, principled liberal is going to be missed.
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