Facing an unusually tough reelection bid, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced Tuesday that he will step down at the end of his term.
“Over the past few years, whenever a member of the press asked if I was contemplating retirement, I would respond by saying that I did not want to leave Congress until we had passed health-care reform. Well, now it has,” he said.
“I haven’t done all the big things that I wanted to do when I started out, but I’ve done all the big things I’m likely to do,” he added.
The move was a blow to House Democrats, who are gearing up for midterm elections expected to reduce or even threaten their majority. Other prominent committee chairmen, including Reps. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, Alan Mollohan (D) of West Virginia, Earl Pomeroy (D) of North Dakota, and Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, also face close races this cycle.
Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak (D), who chairs the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, announced his decision to retire last month, after intense controversy at home over his role in brokering the interests of anti-abortion Democrats in the health-care debate.
“This is a wave election favoring Republican candidates – we just don’t know how big the wave is going to be,” says Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Political Report. “Even though Obey was facing a good Republican challenger, his district is more Democratic than some of his colleagues that are up for reelection. He was in a serious race, but still favored for reelection.”
Obey’s most likely opponent in a fall general election was Republican district attorney Sean Duffy, backed by tea party activists. The National Republican Congressional Committee, in a statement, said that Obey was in “the race of his life.”
"This is more than a symbolic retirement – the architect of the failed stimulus has decided he cannot justify his votes in Congress to a district that has elected him for over 40 years," said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a fundraising appeal after Obey's announcement.
Democrats say they expect to keep the district, which gave President Obama a 14-point edge over Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential vote.
“Chairman Obey would have won re-election again had he run,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We are confident that a Democrat who shares Chairman Obey’s commitment to making progress for Wisconsin’s middle class families will succeed him as the next Representative of Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District.”
A leader of the liberal wing of the House Democratic caucus, Obey has been the top Democrat on the appropriations panel since March 1994. Although a strong critic of the war in Iraq, in 2007 he led difficult negotiations to fully fund the war while also attaching conditions to end it.
In his retirement statement, Obey said that he was especially proud of his losing fight to prevent the passage of the “fiscally irresponsible Reagan budgets, which at a time of devastating inflation cut taxes at the same time the defense budget was being doubled … more than tripling the long-term budget deficit picture.” At the time, some 70 percent of voters in his district supported those budgets. “Time has proven me right,” he said.
At the same time, Obey defended his role in moving a controversial economic stimulus plan. “Today I am similarly proud that I was the principle author of the much maligned but absolutely essential Economic Recovery Act of 2009, which in the midst of the deepest and most dangerous economic catastrophe in 70 years, has pumped desperately needed purchasing power into the economy to cushion the fall and reduced the number of families whose breadwinners were thrown out of work,” he said.
In the end, Obey said that the “wear and tear” of public life took a toll, along with struggles with the “ridiculous rules” of the Senate, which allow a minority to block the will of the majority, and a news media increasingly fixed on the trivial.
“I am, frankly, weary of having to beg on a daily basis that both parties recognize that we do no favor for the country if we neglect to make the long-term investments in education, science, health, and energy that are necessary to modernize our economy and decline to raise the revenue needed to pay for those crucial investments,” he said.
“I am also increasingly weary of having to deal with a press which has become increasingly focused on trivia, driven at least in part by the financial collapse of the news industry and the need, with the 24-hour news cycle, to fill the airwaves with hot air,” he said.
“I say that regretfully because I regard what is happening to the news profession as nothing short of a national catastrophe which I know pains many quality journalists as much as it pains me. Both our professions have been coarsened in recent years and the nation is the loser for it.”