Burning Down the House

David Obey can tell you a thing or two about why Congress has become such a poisonous, evil-tempered place

David Obey Credit: Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

Anybody who thinks that the Clinton years turned the Democratic Party into a pallid corporate copy of the GOP probably hasn't met Rep. David Obey. A Wisconsin progressive in the tradition of "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, Obey has risen to become one of the top Democrats on Capitol Hill without losing either his taste for class conflict or his sense of outrage. In 1995, he created a stir by venting his anger at his own party's centrist president. "If you don't like the president's position on a particular issue, you simply need to wait a few weeks," he acidly noted. Lately he has been voicing his indignation at an electoral system he describes as "one dollar, one vote."

Obey began his career as a political scientist, studying the Soviet Union at the University of Wisconsin. In 1969, at age thirty, he was elected to Congress and won a seat on Appropriations, the all-powerful committee that writes the annual spending bills that fund the government. In 1994, Obey briefly became the committee's chairman — until the Democrats lost control of Congress in that year's Newt Gingrich landslide.

Obey's unhappiness has been building since then. While he thinks it may have done Democrats good to discover what life is like for the minority, he decries the Republican-controlled Congress as a barely functioning institution — a Congress in which crucial legislation languishes in committee and basic civility is a thing of the past.

A devoted amateur harmonica player, Obey spends much of his free time jamming with the Capitol Offenses, a bluegrass band that includes his two sons and his top aide. When I met him in his private office in the Capitol building, Obey was listening to a new CD by one of his constituents, blue-grass artist Bruce Burnside.

What are relations between the parties in Congress like now? You've been here thirty years — is it worse? Is there more animosity?
When I came here, the haters were on our side of the aisle. I considered myself to be anti-Vietnam. But you had about one-third of the anti-Vietnam folks here who were so embittered and hated the war so much and were so bitter about being lied to that they hated Johnson, they hated Nixon, they hated John McCormack, who was the speaker then. They hated the entire leadership structure. And even if you agreed with them on policy right down the line, if you differed with them on strategy or tactics, you were somehow morally inferior. Now they're all gone, and those folks have been resurrected into the Republican box. I remember standing in the men's room — next to the shoeshine chair, waiting to get a shoeshine — when [Rep.] Henry Hyde was on the TV screen debating term limits. Right after the young centurions came in here as part of Gingrich's revolution.

I remember that speech. Hyde attacked term limits.
I was just watching Henry. And this young freshman, who I did not know at the time — I did later — he stood there, with his hands on his hips, watching Henry. He'd been here all of two months. And he said, "Oh, sit down, you silly old man." and I said to him, "Look, buddy, I don't agree with Henry a lot. But Henry's demonstrated he belongs here. And with all due respect, the jury's still out on you." It was that kind of attitude — this imperial arrogance. These guys think that everybody associated with Congress prior to their getting here was morally defective, not a good Christian or not a good conservative, or not serving anybody but the institution. I don't think there's anything bad about serving the institution. I think the institution needs to be protected from the excesses of its members. And they have turned this into a snake pit.

So the class of 1994 ruined Congress?
But it didn't start with them — it started eighteen years ago, when Newt Gingrich got elected and [Pennsylvania Rep.] Bob Walker got elected — people like that. They changed the way this House operated, on an individual level. They would take the floor and routinely savage us. Lee Atwater was the guy who raised that to a high art form on their side of the aisle. And Newt, for eighteen years, would send out these tapes and send out these missives. He'd give their candidates lists of words.

Right — the words to associate with Democrats.
Like traitorous, decaying . . .

"Corrupt," "dishonest."
Nice, wonderful words like that.

And that truculence has survived the demise of Newt Gingrich?
Yeah. It's somewhat better now, because Newt doesn't rev 'em up like he used to. But, I mean, that really ruined the civility in this place. The other thing that hurts is that they substitute antagonism toward government for skepticism about government. I think you ought to be a skeptic. I mean, I don't trust a lot of power in the hands of government, especially in the civil-liberties area. But they say: "Wow, we're gonna be pure. We're not gonna move our families to Washington. We're gonna go home every week." and so what does that mean? It means you've got two nights a week to get to know each other here. You don't get to know each other when you're screaming at each other in committee here. You get to know each other when the gavel is over and you've got some time to spend with each other. And right now, people are here Tuesday nights, they're here Wednesday nights, then they're gone. So it slows down the ability of this place to get anything done. We used to laugh at the Tuesday-through-Thursday club when I first came here, because they were the guys who were slowing the place down in terms of its ability to get its work done. Now it's a lot worse than it used to be.

Why does it matter that they're not here?
When you don't know members' spouses, when you don't know their kids, it's a hell of a lot easier to stand on the floor, dig your heels in and kick the hell out of somebody than it is if you know that you're gonna be with that guy and his family two weeks later at somebody's dinner party or at somebody's ballgame. People see each other only as instruments of the opposition's policy agenda. It's made this place so poisonous. I mean, there's a difference between hard debate — kicking the hell out of their argument — and kicking the hell out of their patriotism, their loyalty and their commitment, their faith.

Did impeachment make it worse?
Oh, far worse. I mean, impeachment just ruined this whole session. It poisoned the interpersonal wells in both the Senate and the House. Their personal contempt for the president spills over into their legislative contempt for the presidency.

Part of it is a desire for revenge, right? There's a feeling that he got away with it.
Yeah, I think so. And I mean, God — if he got away with it, I would hate like hell to see what somebody looks like who got nailed. Because I think he's been immensely diminished in the country's history. I mean, to me, the biggest tragedy about Clinton is that the major part of his legacy will be two words: What if?

The New York Times recently described you as "in the slough of despond" about the state of politics. What do you think the problem is?
What I am despairing of is the Supreme Court and what it has done to our ability to reform campaign finance. Under a misguided interpretation of what constitutes free speech, the Supreme Court has essentially said, "Ain't gonna be no more one-man, one-vote approach to politics — it's one dollar, one vote." I think that virtually everything that's wrong in this country — with economic policy, especially — is due to the fact that people with big money have an opportunity to dominate the dialogue without people even knowing who's paying the freight.

Based on the unlikelihood of the Supreme Court reversing itself on that issue, you must think we need a constitutional amendment.
I am personally convinced that until either the Supreme Court changes its view or we pass a very limited constitutional amendment, nothing will really happen to improve the state of politics.

How would your ideal system work — public financing of congressional elections?
Total — 100 percent. I would set up the grass-roots democracy fund. Let people contribute whatever they want to it. And then that fund would be distributed, by formula, to congressional candidates in every district in the country. And then what I would also do — and this is what drives some of the special-interest groups nuts — I would simply say, "In general elections, not a dime can be spent unless it goes through the candidate's treasury." So that the public knows who the hell is behind each of the guys in the race. And I would say that nobody else could make independent expenditures.

But what you'd be doing, among other things, is saying that I couldn't take out an ad saying, "I support David Obey for Congress." Aren't you restricting a basic First Amendment right — the right of people to say what they think about elections?
I think people have a perfect right, as individuals, to say what they think about an election. I don't think they have a right to hide behind anonymity and influence the election. I'm saying, if you set up a Web site to support a candidate, the cost of that Web site ought to be attributed to the campaign. You ought to be listed as an in-kind contributor, and the cost of that ought to come within the overall spending limits we have on candidates.

Let's talk about this budget fight. First of all, who is running the show on the Republican side? Is it the speaker, Dennis Hastert? Or is it [majority whip] Tom DeLay?
Well, I'm not invited to their meetings. All I know is this: The Republican plan at the beginning of the year was to be as invisible as possible in the Congress — so that, by the end of the year, they could pass off their national image to the presidential candidate. That's the way they thought they would retain the majority. And what happened is, Mr. DeLay said, "No, that's not gonna provide what we need for our base." and so they decided to unilaterally change those bills, to make them more ideologically pure.

When did that happen?
Starting this year, with the very first appropriations bills that the committee took up in March. [Appropriations Committee chairman] Bill Young warned them; so did some others. They didn't pay attention. Now they face the situation where they don't want to sit down with the president. They're convinced that if they do, he'll steal their thunder.

As he has several times in the past.
And so what are they doing? They're pretending that they haven't spent money they've already spent. And they've got these huge gimmicks. What they're doing is building an even bigger problem for next year, which is an election year. I think they would have been a lot smarter to push their problems into this year and get 'em dealt with so that next year would be easier. But they didn't.

I can't interview you for Rolling Stone without asking about your band. What are your influences?
I learned to play the harmonica when I was in grade school. My dad taught me how to play it as a Christmas present to my mother. I'd never heard of bluegrass until I got out here. The Seldom Scene is my all-time favorite bluegrass band. I also like Allison Krauss. Pete Seeger came down and played with us for my fiftieth birthday. Peter, Paul and Mary. Tom Paxton. I also like classical, especially Beethoven, Chopin and Handel. Bach is very good on a harmonica. I mean, a harmonica is not a rock & roll instrument.