True Legislators Becoming Scarce in Congress

Posted May 11, 2010 at 4:37pm

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.

[IMGCAP(1)]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.

Now turn to Sen. Bob Bennett, who could not be more different in personal style or ideology than Obey. But the Utah Republican is also a legislator through and through, someone who wants to make good public policy and looks for pragmatic solutions to problems. Bennett comes by his legislative acumen and instincts honestly; his father, Wallace Bennett (R), preceded him in the Senate and served for more than 20 years as a strong conservative who also provided key support for civil rights legislation.

I have had my differences with Bob Bennett over campaign finance reform, but I have always admired him as a smart, engaging gentleman willing to engage in honest intellectual debate. Bennett did not have the chance to leave the Senate of his own volition, but of course was dumped unceremoniously by a rowdy group of activists at a Republican nominating convention in Utah who cheered raucously at the news of his nomination defeat. There were, it appears, three reasons for his rejection: his long service, marking him as a Washington insider, his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program bill during the Bush presidency, and his co-sponsorship of a health care reform plan with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Washington insider status is an epithet these days, endangering even some Republicans despite their minority status. (Sen. Chuck Grassley is polling below 50 percent in Iowa.) The TARP vote may be one of the most unpopular in modern times, but it also will likely go down as one of the most beneficial to the country; I believe that it saved us from horrible depression and deflation and will prove to be very cost-effective. But not in time for Bennett. As for the health care reform bill, Wyden/Bennett was the only seriously bipartisan reform effort, and it was to many people (me included) the best alternative out there. That Bennett would be punished for finding a market-driven health care reform idea is truly sad. (This would be a good time to throw a bouquet Ron Wyden’s way; there is no Senator more committed to finding innovative and positive advances in key policies that can bridge the yawning gap between the parties, as evidenced not just in health policy but in taxes, including his terrific new tax reform plan with New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg.)

Thank goodness we still have a lot of real legislators who will not be leaving. But I fear we will have fewer than now, and fewer than we need, in the 112th Congress.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.