Ohio Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, 90; Fought Special-Interest Bills, Tax Breaks

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

Howard M. Metzenbaum, 90, the Ohio senator who battled big business, stood up for labor and consumers and blocked scores of special-interest bills, died March 12 at his home in Aventura, Fla., in Miami-Dade County. No cause of death was reported, but he had been in failing health for the past year.

Sen. Metzenbaum, a Democrat and a self-made millionaire, was the scourge of moneyed interests. An unabashed liberal who was dubbed "Senator No" by opponents, he excelled in finding special-interest legislation tucked into major bills and then blocking it. His mastery of the Senate rules on holds, filibusters and amendments forced opponents to negotiate with him, which made him a powerful player.

"He was the conscience of the Senate, who never shied away from the difficult fights, and never apologized for standing up for workers," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said yesterday in a statement. "He was a master of using every rule of the Senate to advance the cause of working men and women."

His tactics, however, regularly aggravated fellow senators, some of whom considered him a headline hog and "a pain the ass," as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) famously said after Sen. Metzenbaum held up the sale of a federal railroad and adjoining timber and mineral rights to the state of Alaska.

Sen. Metzenbaum's hometown paper called him "the last angry liberal." Even the measured Almanac of American Politics described him as "prickly, persistent and at times irritating."

But during Sen. Metzenbaum's 19-year career in the Senate, he won the support of labor, consumer and environmental groups as well as reelection by a state that he often noted was more conservative than he was.

He was the original sponsor of the Brady Bill, which required a waiting period for purchasing handguns, and he sponsored the ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons. He passed a landmark law that required nutrition labels on food and prohibited the overseas sale of infant formula that was banned in the United States. He sponsored successful legislation that requires employers who are closing plants to give workers at least 60 days' notice. A law named in his honor prohibits federally subsidized adoption agencies from delaying or denying child placement on grounds of race or ethnicity.

Sen. Metzenbaum also passed an anti-age-discrimination law and forced faltering businesses in the 1980s to keep up their obligation on retirees' health benefits.

Sen. Metzenbaum rarely pulled his punches. He was so incensed by the opposition to President Bill Clinton's universal health care proposal in 1994 that he called a counterproposal from a bipartisan group of moderates "a callow, heartless idea, a harebrained, cruel, crass, 'lame-stream' proposal, one of the most absurd things I've ever heard of."

"Sometimes in order to be effective, you have to be an s.o.b.," he told the Chicago Tribune later that year. "You have to be willing to take your position, saying that's my position and I'm not going to change, I don't care if 99 other senators want me to change. I think this is wrong, and I'm not going to let it go."

The Washington Post calculated that in 1982 alone, Sen. Metzenbaum blocked the passage of bills that would have cost the Treasury or consumers about $10 billion. The year before, he filibustered a bill that was about to grant independent oil producers a $26 billion tax break by reducing their windfall profits tax; the final bill cut that in half. In 1980, he stopped tax breaks that would have cost other taxpayers $5 billion.

"Lobbyists perceive me as anti-business," he told The Post in 1982, "but I'm one of the most pro-free-enterprise people in the U.S. Senate. . . . I find that those who claim to believe in free enterprise are the first to turn to us for protection."

Sen. Metzenbaum had some notable losses, including an unsuccessful two-week filibuster in 1977 against a bill that lifted price controls on natural gas. When debate was cut off, he introduced 500 amendments, requiring a roll-call vote on each one.

He also failed in an attempt to ban companies from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers. He tried unsuccessfully to strip Major League Baseball of its antitrust exemption. He also tried to remove J. Edgar Hoover's name from the FBI building after learning that Hoover had the FBI spy on a former Senate colleague.

But Sen. Metzenbaum, who lost two races for Senate before winning three straight terms, was never one to give up easily.

Born a child of poverty on Cleveland's east side on June 4, 1917, Howard Morton Metzenbaum went to work at age 10 delivering groceries. He worked his way through Ohio State University selling chrysanthemums outside the football stadium and scalping tickets. He also played the trombone, rented bicycles and sold magazines. He drove classmates home, for a fee, in his 1926 Essex until his father had to sell the car to pay the family's mortgage.

He graduated from Ohio State's Law School in 1941 and within two years was elected to the state legislature. By the early 1950s, he teamed with an old friend and founded the Airport Parking Co. of America, which provided staffed and well-lit parking lots near airports. They sold the firm in 1966 for $6 million. He also owned a chain of suburban weekly newspapers around Cleveland.

In 1970, he ran against astronaut John Glenn for Ohio's Democratic nomination for the Senate. He won the primary but lost the general election. Appointed in 1973 to fill a vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of William B. Saxbe, he served a year, then once again battled Glenn for the seat, which Glenn won.

Sen. Metzenbaum finally made it to the Senate in 1976, unseating Republican Robert Taft Jr. He was reelected in 1982 and 1988 and retired in 1994. One-third of the U.S. Senate attended his retirement party.

On his last day in office, he took the floor of the Senate to rail against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, arguing that the agreement perpetuated foreign child-labor abuses and would accelerate the demise of U.S. factories.

"I participated . . . knowing full well we're going to lose but thinking I would be less of a person if I didn't raise these issues," he told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. "I'm glad I'm going out in the midst of a battle, maybe disappointed that I'm not on the winning side. But that was and has been my role, to be able and willing to speak out when others were not willing to do so. And maybe time will prove the rightness of my position."

Sen. Metzenbaum then became chairman of the Consumer Federation of America, a position he held until his death. For the first 10 years, he was in the office almost every day, said Stephen Brobeck, the organization's executive director.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Shirley Metzenbaum of Aventura; four daughters, Barbara Sherwood of Topanga, Calif., Susan Hyatt of Atherton, Calif., Shelley Metzenbaum of Concord, Mass., and Amy Yanowitz of Mill Valley, Calif.; and nine grandchildren.

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