David Obey: I Leave More Discontented Than I Started
Policy + Politics

David Obey: I Leave More Discontented Than I Started

The Fiscal Times' Washington Editor Eric Pianin talked to Rep. David R. Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, on Tuesday, July 13, in his office at the Capitol. Here are some excerpts (Read our full story here):

On the TARP bailout of Wall Street, the economic stimulus package and the need for more action on the economy:

I think everything [President] Bush and [President] Obama have done on the economy is getting a needless bad rap. At least that’s everything Bush did after September of the last year he was in office. . . I knew then it would be costly political vote because I was pissed off, because I detested being in the position we had to help the very people [on Wall Street] who had caused the economy to implode in the first place. We had no choice. If you’ve got an epidemic going on, you’ve got to treat the people who caused the epidemic as well as the people treating it or everyone is going to die.

The public hates it, but it happens to have been a pretty damn good deal for the taxpayers. When all is said and done, that will not have cost the American people nearly as much as we feared. The cost will be less than $100 billion. And if you can save your economy by spending $100 billion, I’d say that’s worth it. Even if to do that you had to give some help to the dumb bastards who got us in trouble in the first place, and you can quote me.

The problem for Obama, he wasn’t as lucky as Roosevelt, because when Obama took over we were still in the middle of a free fall. So his Treasury people came in and his other economic people came in and said "Hey, we need a package of $1.4 trillion." We started sending suggestions down to OMB waiting for a call back. After two and a half weeks, we started getting feedback. We put together a package that by then the target had been trimmed to $1.2 trillion. And then [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel said to me, "Geez, do you really think we can afford to come in with a package that big, isn’t it going to scare people?" I said, "Rahm, you will need that shock value so that people understand just how serious this problem is." They wanted to hold it to less than $1 trillion. Then [Pennsylvania Senator Arlen] Specter and the two crown princesses from Maine [Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins] took it down to less than $800 billion. Spread over two and a half years, that’s a hell of a lot of money, but spread over two and a half years in an economy this large, it doesn’t have a lot of fiscal power.

We’re in danger of [throttling back on government spending too soon, as Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression]. Any idiot understands that we've got to get our long term fiscal house in order. I take a back seat to nobody about my concern about fiscal responsibility. I was one of the leaders who helped pass Bill Clinton’s budget which helped to end deficit spending and brought us three straight years of budget surpluses. And I've opposed all of Bush’s giveaways.

On education and the Obama administration:

The secretary of Education is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted .… So, when we needed money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal. We were giving them over $10 billion in money to help keep teachers on the job, plus another $5 billion for Pell, so he was getting $15 billion for the programs he says he cares about, and it was costing him $500 million [in reductions to the Race to the Top program]. Now that’s a pretty damn good deal.

So as far as I’m concerned, the secretary of Education should have been happy as hell. He should have taken that deal and smiled like a Cheshire cat. He’s got more walking around money than every other cabinet secretary put together.

It blows my mind that the White House would even notice the fight [over Race to the Top]. I would have expected the president to say to the secretary, "look, you’re getting a good deal, for God's sake, what this really does is guarantee that the rest of the money isn’t going to be touched."

We gave [Duncan] $4.3 billion in the stimulus package, no questions asked. He could spend it any way he wants. … I trusted the secretary, so I gave him a hell of a lot more money than I should have.

My point is that I have been working for school reform long before I ever heard of the secretary of education, and long before I ever heard of Obama. And I’m happy to welcome them on the reform road, but I’ll be damned if I think the only road to reform lies in the head of the Secretary of Education.

We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here. … Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.

On teachers' unions and education policy:

I have had a half-life war with the NEA . For three years in a row I refused to even take any contributions because they had this silly deal that every year if you want to get their endorsement, you first had to fill out their silly questionnaire and pledge like a Boy Scout that you would do A, B, C, D and E. And I said I’m not going to do that. I have been the lead pony on education funding for 15 years around here, and if NEA isn’t smart enough to figure out where the hell I'm coming from on education after that time, they don’t deserve to be in the business.

I have been the leading proponent of funding for education for the last 15 years in this Congress at least. … And I’ve had a hell of a lot of experience fighting teachers unions, school boards, school superintendents, the whole damn bunch when I thought they were wrong. I don’t need any lectures from the secretary of Education or the president of the United States in terms of my willingness to take on teachers’ organizations.

On his legacy:

I don’t know what my biggest contribution has been. I think it has been simply showing up for work every day, trying to fight the good fight for average people. My models have always been at state level old Bob LaFollette and at the national level [former Reps.] John Moss and Dick Bolling. They never lost their sense of purpose and never lost their sense of rage at injustice.

But I leave more discontented when I came here because of the terrible things that have been done to this economy by political leaders who allowed Wall Street to turn Wall Street banks into gambling casinos which damned near destroyed the economy.

I think the more important thing was what was my biggest failure. I think our biggest failure collectively has been our failure to stop the ripoff of the middle class by the economic elite of this country, and this is not just something that happened because of the forces of the market.