A Hard-Edged Cheesehead and the Power of the Purse
Earmarking is hardly new, but over the past few years, the practice of Washington lawmakers quietly tucking billions of dollars for their pet projects into spending bills has become a political cause célèbre. Democrat Rep. David Obey, a longtime reformer, tried for years to cut the influence of earmarks. But after the Dems took the House last fall, Obey took over the House Appropriations Committee, and he's now the one feeling the heat.
His plan was to leave the proposed list of earmarks out of view until the House and Senate met at the end of the appropriations process, so his staff could review the 32,000 congressional earmark requests. Conservative Republicans and groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense cried foul. His home state newspaper said he had gone from "hero to villain" in six months.
The 68-year-old Obey ultimately reversed course. He dismisses earmark stories as "little league," and his opponents' tactics as "silly young politics." But chairing the Appropriations Committee isn't for kids, a fact that isn't lost on the prickly pragmatist from Wisconsin. There are plenty of battles this year, from the spending fights that started immediately after Democrats won in the fall, to the howling over pork-barrel earmarks, to the biggest struggle of all: finding a way out of the Iraq war, perhaps through funding cuts. Nancy Pelosi may be the top House Democrat, but Obey, as the party's top appropriator, is in the center of the action, with direct sway over the power of the purse.
Obey is a 38-year veteran of Congress, the House's third-most-senior member, with little compunction about speaking his mind. His upcoming memoirs are titled Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive. His bluster has more than occasionally ruffled feathers, but Scott Lilly, a former aide, says Obey is "adept at using his unhappiness in skillful ways" and is still "loved by colleagues." He has a wry streak too. On the House floor, he often quotes Archy the Cockroach, a character from a satirical newspaper column that began in the early 1900s. Obey also plays harmonica in a band called The Capitol Offenses.
Leanings. Growing up in hardworking northwestern Wisconsin, Obey leaned Republican early on, even supporting Sen. Joe McCarthy, before he turned Democratic. In high school, he found his political convictions in the state's progressive heroesthe LaFollettes, Sen. Gaylord Nelson, and Sen. William Proxmireand of course in the New Deal Democrats, especially Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photos of them all hang over Obey's desk in the Capitol, but if Obey carries on their politics, he's a bit more focused on tactics: "He's much more of an inside player," says David Canon, a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Obey was on a graduate fellowship in Russian studies at the University of Wisconsin when he decided to run for the Wisconsin State Assembly at age 24. A 1,000-vote margin later, he was headed to the statehouse in Madison. A congressional seat opened up in 1969 when then Rep. Melvin Laird was nominated as secretary of defense, and Obey soon found himself the youngest House member in Washington. He's built a consistently liberal record and led many efforts at ethics reform over the years, including writing stronger financial disclosure policies. Soon after he arrived on Capitol Hill, he found his way into an even more exclusive club, the Appropriations Committee. He's been there ever since.
More important than earmarks, he says, are the overall spending and budget priorities Congress tackles each year in 12 appropriations bills. "Earmarking is a tiny little aspect of what happens," he says. He's focused on boosting funds for Pell grants for college students, veterans' healthcare, the National Institutes of Health, and other domestic programs. The appropriations bills will most likely total about $20 billion more than the president's budget, an increase George Bush says he won't tolerate. The president has threatened to veto most of the bills. That fight is several weeks away, but Obey says Bush is just "engaging in a giant diversion," trying to pin the nation's debt problems on "this little difference we have in discretionary spending."
Yes, antiwar activists and Obey have clashed this year (an infamous YouTube video this spring showed Obey referring to some of them as "idiot liberals"). Like them, Obey wants out of Iraq immediately"Who doesn't?" he asks, saying that he voted against the war authorization bill in 2002. But having served in Congress during the Vietnam War, he knows how hard it is to win the votes necessary for restrictions and timetables on withdrawing U.S. troops. "People say, 'Why should you compromise? Stand on principle even if you lose,'" Obey says. "Any idiot can pound his chest and rage at the moon three times, but it doesn't have much effect." That Democrats were able to put legislation on Bush's desk this spring with a timetable for withdrawal was "an absolute miracle" to him, despite the president's veto in the end. Democrats are planning to keep the pressure onthrough similar legislation this month and the upcoming defense appropriations bill"until enough Republicans go down to the White House and say, 'Mr. President, this is over,'" Obey says. That may be many months away. But David Obey is working the process. That's something he knows how to do.
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.