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WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s a one-sentence provision in the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress and became public law last March:
“Hereafter, the Hearing Room of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies of the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives (room 2358-C of the Rayburn House Office Building) shall be known and designated as the “David R. Obey Room.”
The rare accolade from his colleagues honors Democrat Obey for his 42 years of service in Congress representing the 7th District in northwestern Wisconsin, and specifically for his service on the House Appropriations Committee, where he served twice as the chairman.
He was elected, as he puts it, “on April Fool’s Day” in 1969 to replace Republican Melvin R. Laird, who was named secretary of defense by President Richard M. Nixon.
Obey, 83, who retired in 2011, was feted by colleagues, former staff members and friends at a Rayburn reception Tuesday.
At the reception, four former leaders of the Appropriations Committee — two Republicans and two Democrats — issued a statement of congratulations for Obey, commending him for his past leadership of the committee and the Labor/HHS subcommittee.
“Chairman Obey was a masterful chair of both the full committee and this important subcommittee,” they wrote, “learning each program’s details and how they affect everyday Americans’ lives.
“He used his powerful voice to champion issue after issue and to expand much needed access in underserved areas. From rural health facilities to Pell Grants, Chairman Obey always understood this particular bill — the “people’s bill” — touches lives more directly than any other.
It was signed by two former Republican chairs: Robert Livingston of Louisiana and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, as well as two Democratic leaders: former chair Nita Lowey of New York and former ranking member Norm Dicks of Washington state.
More than 100 colleagues, former staffers and friends attended the reception, including Obey’s wife, Joan, and his two sons, Douglas and Craig.
Also attending were current and former members of Congress from Wisconsin, including Democrats Mark Pocan of the Madison area, Ron Kind of La Crosse and Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, as well as retired Republican Rep. Thomas Petri of Fond du Lac.
There was much praise for Obey’s dedication and skills, as well as laugh-inducing references to the congressman’s sometimes irascible personality.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled serving on the Labor/HHS subcommittee with Obey, “but not without some fear,” calling him a legislative virtuoso who once scolded her for not being more diplomatic.
She praised him as someone “who cared for people in their homes,” a legislator with values who got results and brought people together, “sometimes cheerfully.”
House Majority leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., recalled a favorite Obey description of hypocrites and phonies as people “posing for holy pictures” and said Obey never did that himself.
From the start of his career in Congress, Obey had decided to seek a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which along with its counterpart in the Senate, crafts all of the government’s discretionary spending. Laird had served on Appropriations and concentrated on what usually was called “the Labor/HHS subcommittee.”
But first Obey had to persuade the Democratic leadership to assign him to Appropriations. In an interview, he recalled that he received most of his support from prominent women members: Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Nita Lowey of New York. He also became a close ally and friend of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, now the Speaker of the House.
“I got a call from Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.), who was on the Democratic Steering Committee,” Obey said, “and she asked if I still wanted to go on Appropriations. I said, ‘Who do I have to kill?’ And she said she’d call me as soon as the deed was done.”
The call came. “She said, ‘You got it. There was no horse-trading.’”
Once on Appropriations, Obey became a foreign affairs expert, serving on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, 10 years as its chairman, where he developed friendships with national leaders who were adversaries. Prominent among them were Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt.
Obey also spent 36 years as a member of the Labor/HHS Subcommittee, where he also served as chairman and developed a reputation as a staunch liberal whose orientation was toward helping working-class citizens and the poor.
Eventually, he became chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, considered among the most powerful positions in the U.S. government because of the committee’s control of discretionary spending. Obey served as the chairman in 1994-’95 and 2007-2011, when he retired.
With his wife, Joan, Obey now lives in Goodwin House, a continuing care retirement community in Alexandria, Virginia.
In the interview, Obey said his preference was for the Labor/HHS Subcommittee.
“It is more than just a teacher’s pet for programs for political liberals, as some conservatives think,” he said. “It is a hard-nosed set of initiatives that know the jagged edges of capitalism. To me, it demonstrates that if you’re an appropriator you’re not just an accountant but an accountant with human values, and there’s a moral purpose to government.”
Obey, throughout his career, was fond of quoting Archy the cockroach, from the famed “Archy and Mehitabel” fictional characters by Don Marquis, a New York newspaperman. Mehitabel was an alley cat.
Quoting Archy to describe his life in Congress, Obey said: “As the world goes by, I see things from the underside.”
Frank Aukofer reported from Washington, D.C., for The Milwaukee Journal and later the merged Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 30 years, retiring as its D.C. bureau chief in 2000.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: David Obey honored with his name on a room in the Rayburn House