For a combined three-quarters of a century, David Obey and Christopher Dodd walked the halls of Congress; they are both retiring this year on a high.
Obey, a 72-year-old Wisconsin representative, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He guided through the fiscal stimulus package; though unpopular, most economic experts say it helped avoid a much deeper recession.
Dodd, 66, is a five-term senator from Connecticut. With House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, he authored the financial-regulatory bill that rewrote the rules for Wall Street after the crisis. He also played a major role in the passage of the health-care overhaul.
In separate interviews, Dodd and Obey reflected on rich experiences and contemporary concerns. Both are liberal Democrats -- Obey more so -- who care deeply about Congress as an institution, have a track record of working with political opposites and lament that the legislative branch, and much of the U.S. political system, are dysfunctional these days.
Neither disputes some of the negative views about Congress; they partially blame the news media, particularly the lack of coverage.
“Newspapers have been taken over by chains, and if they cover members at all it’s as politicians, not legislators,” says Obey, who represents a sprawling northern Wisconsin district. As for 24-7 cable television news, “One minute they will be talking about an important piece of legislation, then they’ll go to a story on modeling underwear.”
Dodd recalls there used to be a dozen Connecticut reporters who covered the delegation; today there is one. No longer, he says, do home-state reporters show up to cover a “dull hearing that isn’t going to be a news story, but the reporter learns about the subject matter as I learn about it.”
The biggest difference, however, is the erosion of comity and relationships. They both joined Congress -- Obey in 1969 in a special election to take the seat of President Richard Nixon’s defense secretary, Melvin Laird, and Dodd as a House member five years later -- during the divisive Vietnam War, with the memories of the bitter civil-rights struggles still fresh.
Over the past two decades, Dodd says, there has been a “stripping of the socialization, which is always what made this place function.” He has a prodigious legislative record and says the 2010 health-care bill marked the first time he ever passed a measure without a Republican sponsor.
Obey recalls working cooperatively with conservative Republican lawmakers such as Bob Livingston of Louisiana, Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and New York’s Jack Kemp, as well as House leaders of that party such as Gerald Ford of Michigan and Bob Michel of Illinois. Asked if there’s any Republican with whom he has a good relationship today, he responds, “If I cited them it would hurt them in their caucus.”
“There has been a nationalization of politics where everybody has consultants and pollsters,” complains Obey. “Every time you cast a vote you expect the other party’s campaign committee to blast-fax something into your district.”
When he first came to Congress, the 41-year House veteran says, there was about an equal divide between the legislative and the political. “Today, it’s 90-10 political,” he says. It’s a 24-7 racket with little time for socializing or reflection.
Dodd remembers how he got his master’s and Ph.D. in the Senate: through long hours in the members’ dining room, where he sat enthralled listening to the old bulls such as Louisiana Senator Russell Long or Mississippi’s John Stennis, or the always thoughtful Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.
Senate Dining Room
“As a new member, you just sat there and absorbed it as they would rib each other and sometimes have a heated debate about a subject,” he says. “It was as good an education as you could get about the place.”
Today, “there’s no one in that room.”
The centrality of money in politics has become insidious, these lawmakers complain. “I spent $45,000 in my first race,” Obey says. “Today it’s commonplace to spend three to four million dollars on a House race. Some members spend more time dialing for dollars than on legislation.”
Dodd concurs: “People just elected a month ago already are holding or planning fundraising events.”
Both recall fondly some of the legislative giants they’ve seen. They agree that Ted Kennedy was unsurpassed as an effective senator, and Dodd says Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole are among his all-stars. Obey’s mentor was the late Richard Bolling of Missouri, perhaps the most astute politician-scholar to serve in the House.
‘Tough and Principled’
The Badger State lawmaker has served with eight speakers and says Nancy Pelosi of California was the most effective: “She’s tough and principled; we would not have health care without her determination.”
On presidents, both warm at the mention of Ford, who was in office for less than two-and-a-half years. “In terms of healing the country, he did a hell of a job,” Obey says, “including the pardon of Richard Nixon, which I opposed at the time. I was wrong.”
The Connecticut senator, who clashed frequently with the Reagan White House, fondly recalls the 40th president and his remarkable optimism. Shortly after Ronald Reagan was devastated in a 1984 debate, Dodd arrived early for a separate White House meeting and was invited to see the president.
“I’m thinking: He must be in a fetal position sucking his thumb. And I’m looking at this guy, like Holy Christ, less than 12 hours ago you were just pilloried, and here you are, it’s a new day. I can’t do anything about last night, this is today.”
Obey and Dodd believe that President Barack Obama has enjoyed as auspicious a start as any of his predecessors. “As Pat Moynihan once said,” Dodd recalls, “a president only gets 20 months from inauguration to the first midterm election to do anything of real significance. That’s the window. Obama’s done it.”
And where did Moynihan relate that? In the Senate Dining Room.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)