Top-ranking Democrat Obey says he’ll exit House

Wisc. progressive was facing strong GOP challenge

David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has spent four decades in Congress. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has spent four decades in Congress. (Alex Wong/ Getty Images)
By Andrew Taylor
Associated Press / May 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Representative David Obey, a leading liberal Democrat but a symbol of entrenched incumbency that’s falling out of favor with discontented voters, said yesterday he will retire at the end of his term this year.

The decision by the often gruff House veteran of four decades and influential Appropriations Committee chairman dealt Democrats defending their majority another blow headed into a midterm election where they already confronted a significant loss of seats.

Obey, at 71 the third longest-serving current member of the House, faced a potentially bruising reelection campaign this fall for the northwestern Wisconsin seat he’s held since winning a special election in 1969.

At a hastily called Capitol Hill news conference, Obey told reporters he was confident he could have won another term, but that with the passage of landmark health care legislation this year, he felt he had accomplished much of what he set out to do in Washington.

“There is a time to stay and a time to go. And this is my time to go,’’ Obey said. “Frankly I hate to do it. There is so much that needs to be done. But even more frankly I am bone tired.’’

Washington Democrat Norm Dicks is next in line to run the committee, which decides how to spend $1 trillion in annual government funds.

Obey has routinely won reelection easily despite representing a competitive district. He won in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote. This year’s race would have been far more challenging; Obey’s decision came after Democratic polling showed he was vulnerable.

Democrats, who hold a comfortable majority, expect to lose seats in November, a typical trend for a new president’s party in the first midterm elections. Complicating Democratic prospects are a slide in support for Congress and President Obama as well as the party’s agenda.

Sean Duffy, 38, a Republican district attorney, is seen as the favored candidate in the GOP primary Sept. 14. Duffy has attracted the backing of Republicans in Washington, Tea Party activists, and the GOP 2008 vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.

Obey came to the House during the tumult of the Vietnam War, when Congress was dominated by conservative Southern Democrats. He is leaving as one of its most influential members, his power stemming from his committee chairmanship and a close relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“This is a big loss for us, but he has left his mark,’’ Pelosi said, adding that Obey had talked privately of retiring before, but “we kept pulling him back.’’

Obey earned a reputation as a reformer over the years. He fought the seniority system that concentrated power in the hands of conservative Southerners and chaired a task force that wrote rules requiring lawmakers to disclose their personal finances and limit the potential for conflicts of interest.

More recently, he has been an architect of overhauling the earmarking process, requiring greater transparency and blocking House members from directing earmarks to for-profit-companies whose executives often return the favor with campaign cash.

He also can have an irascible, sometimes prickly demeanor and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In a 2007 incident, he was captured on camera by an anti-war group telling activists who confronted him outside his Capitol Hill office that “idiot liberals’’ didn’t understand Democrats’ strategy for leaving Iraq.

“I didn’t come here to win any charm-school award,’’ he said at the time.

Obey was elected to the Wisconsin legislature and was a protégé of Senator Gaylord Nelson, an iconic Wisconsin progressive who was the founder of Earth Day.