In Session

Retiring Obey still speaks his mind after 41 years

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 5:40 PM

Never one to hold his tongue, Rep. David R. Obey has somehow managed to become even more outspoken as the last days of his congressional career tick away.

The Wisconsin Democrat, who is retiring after 41 years in the House, thinks that lawmakers should spend more time in Washington, not less. He thinks that earmarks serve an important purpose and that the debate over them has been largely irrelevant. He says the budget process has become "ludicrously meaningless" and rewards whichever side tells the biggest lies. He believes the Afghan government is "useless."

And at a time when conservatives are ascendant in the Capitol, Obey remains an unapologetic liberal.

"The biggest failure that I've had and that Congress has had . . . is the failure to slow the relentless transfer of income up the income scale, which has left this a two-tiered society," he said in an interview last week, arguing that "the economic elite of this country has performed the biggest ripoff of the middle class in the history of the universe."

Facing a potentially tough reelection race, Obey, 72, chose to retire this year rather than run in a bruising and expensive contest. The departure of Obey - who has been the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee since 1994, helping to allocate several trillion dollars in federal spending along the way - is part of a larger exodus among some of his party's oldest hands on the Hill.

House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) and House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) both lost on Election Day, and those three departing panel heads will take with them a combined 102 years of experience in Congress.

Obey's successor in Wisconsin's sprawling 7th District, Rep.-elect Sean Duffy (R), was born two years after Obey was elected to Congress. Obey was in his 28th year in office when Duffy first appeared on MTV's "The Real World" reality show; the Republican later became the Ashland County district attorney.

Like many newer lawmakers from both parties, Duffy said during his campaign that he would try to spend as much time as possible in his district, not Washington. When the House is in session, members often arrive in town Tuesday evening and try to leave by Thursday afternoon.

"This country has problems that require attention more than two and a half days a week," Obey said, making the case that members' absence from the Capitol has eroded bipartisan relationships and made Congress a less civil place.

When he was first elected, he said, it was common for Democrats and Republicans to socialize on weekends with their families. "It's a lot harder to kick the hell out of somebody on the House floor if you know you're going to see their wife and kids on Sunday," he said.

Obey was elected in the middle of a long period of unchallenged Democratic dominance in the House. Now control of the chamber is about to flip for the third time in 16 years, and he thinks that competitiveness has made "the politics of the joint" poisonous and far less amenable to compromise.

"When I came here, I think the place was 50 percent political and 50 percent legislative. . . . Now it's 90 percent political," Obey said.

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