Sept. 23, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

True Legislators Becoming Scarce in Congress

This is a column about legislators — the real kind, those with a natural affinity for the legislative process, an ability to make laws, build coalitions and shape public policy, and a deep desire to do all of the above. Congress-watchers know who they are and gravitate to them, whatever their party, ideology or personality. We are losing some of our best legislators this year, which is painful to us Congress-watchers and Congress-lovers.

Let me start with Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.). I have known Dave Obey since 1969 — I arrived in the fall of that year, the same year he came to Congress to replace Rep. Mel Laird when Laird went into the Nixon Cabinet as secretary of Defense. It was a pretty dramatic contrast for voters in a Northern Wisconsin district, going from a crafty conservative Republican representing them to a fiery liberal Democrat. What a lucky district — 16 years of Laird, a master legislator, followed by more than 40 years of Obey, one of the great legislators of our lifetime.

In the four decades I have known him, Obey has not changed. He is and always has been blunt, totally honest, passionate and a regular pain in the ass — to those standing in the way of fairness and justice, to his adversaries and to his friends if they disagree with him. (I have had personal experience.) His wonderful autobiography was perfectly titled “Raising Hell for Justice.” You never get spin from Obey, whether you are a colleague or a reporter. You also get no slack cut if you demonstrate hypocrisy or cowardice. Some people get more curmudgeonly as they get older; others mellow. Dave has done neither — he was a curmudgeon when he was 30, just as he is at 71. (I shouldn’t say it, but he is also a really nice and generous guy.)

Most importantly, Obey is a lawmaker to his bones. He cares about the legislative process, about legislative craftsmanship, about politics in the best sense. His statement (vintage Obey, none of the flowery PR language that often accompanies retirement or resignation announcements) is an honest and fierce indictment of our current political dynamic and shows how the divisive and cheap politics of our time are taking a broader toll.

I read Obey’s statement shortly after reading a terrific essay by another great legislator (and top scholar of Congress), Rep. David Price. In an essay based on his Pi Sigma Alpha lecture from earlier this year, the North Carolina Democrat laments the degree to which the collegial and bipartisan dynamic that has long operated in the House Appropriations Committee has been distorted by the broader political climate; bills crafted in the right way, with bipartisan deliberation and input, end up with some of the same minority Members who shaped them voting against their own handiwork on the House floor. And even inside the committee, some firebrand Members are bringing the take-no-prisoners approach of their party fringe into the panel markups.

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