Congress is Paralyzed Until More Americans Speak Up, David Obey Says

Former Rep. Obey says best way to fix Congress is more voter participation

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Former Wisconsin Rep. Dave Obey, a Democrat and one of the longest-serving House Appropriations Committee chairman, shared some frank insights about the pugnacious state of politics during an event at the Urban Institute on Wednesday.

In addition to the oft-cited ailments of Congress—including the loss of bipartisan collegiality, the amount of time spent fundraising, the nationalization of congressional campaigns, and the reduced competitiveness of lawmakers' districts—he provided specific examples of why public policy-making is suffering.

"Everybody in politics seems today to be very able when it comes to defining their differences; it's a hell of a lot tougher to then move to reconcile those differences," he says.

One of the first tasks of his last term was to help craft the federal stimulus package, he recounts. He says he called in his Republican counterpart to discuss the general plan Democrats had in mind in hopes of finding areas of compromise.

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"I said, 'look it, we'd like to have this as bipartisan as possible,' " Obey says, adding that his Republican colleague said GOP leadership told him not to compromise on anything.

"In other words what I was being told was that whatever we did, they were going to kick the hell out of it. And they did," he says.

Though he was mostly critical of the state of the Republican party during his remarks, Obey hinted that Democrats had blundered while in the majority.

"Just because you've got the votes to do something, doesn't mean you ought to do it. Sometimes you need to pull your punches," he says, following his reflection of the tempestuous health care debate. He also points out that in order to create lasting public policy both sides need to buy into the result – which also demands no one can get entirely what they want.

Obey was supposed to be joined by former Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson, also from Wisconsin, to offer bipartisan perspective on the current state of public leadership, but Gunderson was unable to attend. Obey says in a recent conversation he had with Gunderson, the Republican said he is sure he is the kind of lawmaker that would have faced a primary opponent in 2010 had he been running because conservatives would not have viewed him as ideologically pure enough.

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"(Democratic Rep.) Barney Frank said the other day, one of the problems in the Republican Party today is that half of the people in the caucus think like Michele Bachmann and the other half think that they're going to be 'primaried' by people who think like Michele Bachmann," Obey says.

The only way to blunt the impact of that reality, Obey says, is for more voters to get involved.

"One of the reasons I quit is because I got damn tired of hearing from people who wouldn't get off their butts and defend themselves," he says. "The problem I think you've got is that there are so many people who pay very little attention to politics that it is only the ardent believers on both sides participating in the process."

Email: rmetzler@usnews.com

Twitter: @rebekahmetzler