David Obey Locks Horns with Obama in Budget Battle
Policy + Politics

David Obey Locks Horns with Obama in Budget Battle

This summer is fast turning into a bittersweet swan song for David Obey, the veteran Democratic House member from Wisconsin.

The mercurial chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and stalwart champion of liberal economic and social policy is set to retire after more than 40 momentous years in Congress. But instead of celebrating, Obey is locked in a bruising and highly personal budget battle – not with his Republican adversaries, but with Democratic President Obama and a prominent cabinet member.
Read excerpts of The Fiscal Times interview with David Obey.

In the greater scheme of things, the spending controversy is “small potatoes,” a “lousy little fight” over an asterisk in a multitrillion-dollar annual budget, as Obey describes it. At issue is whether to trim $500 million from Obama’s signature “Race to the Top” education initiative to help avert the threatened layoff of 140, 000 school teachers across the country. Obey believes the proposed trim of about 15 percent of funding for future programs is a small price for the administration to pay to keep teachers on the job now, amid a stubborn recession. But Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are treating it as a potentially devastating assault on their new education program, and have threatened a veto.

Just Thursday, Duncan and White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes told reporters that, in effect, the House Democratic action was making a false choice between reform and keeping teachers in the classroom. “You can’t pit jobs against reform,” Duncan said in a conference call. “The president [favors] support for teacher jobs but we will recommend a veto if the final bill includes cuts to reform programs,” Barnes said. “It doesn’t have to come to that.”

“I’ll be damned if I think the only road to reform lies
in the head of the secretary of Education.”

What should have been a garden variety disagreement between the president and his Democratic allies on the House committee that holds the purse strings has somehow metastasized into an ugly exchange. Obey and other House Democrats cite it as another example of Obama’s insensitivity and neglect of House Democrats, while administration allies have accused  Obey of “carrying water” for the teachers’ unions. Obey has a long record of supporting educational reforms, although he has been somewhat dismissive of “Race to the Top” as a means of providing “walk around money” to school  systems in states that take on challenging reforms.  Race to the Top is a competitive grant program that rewards states that shift their education emphasis onto teacher quality and encourage innovations like charter schools.

“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,” Obey told The Fiscal Times in an interview this week in his office in the Capitol. “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.”

“The secretary of education is whining about the fact he only got 85 percent of the money he wanted,” Obey added. “It was a 15 percent cut, and they’re making a federal case out of it.”

In a narrow sense, the fight is about Obey’s attempts to move money around to keep overall spending in balance: a little more for one program, a little less for another. But money for teachers’ jobs should be an easy sell to a Democratic president. The fact that it has become so fraught exposes other, broader fault lines: between calls for more government spending and immediate action to control the deficit; and between the Democrats who control opposing ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

With a critical midterm election looming, unemployment still hovering near 10 percent and a budget deficit in the neighborhood of $1.3 trillion, lawmakers and policymakers are sorely divided over whether it makes sense to continue pouring billions into recovery programs and extended unemployment, or begin trying to whittle away at the long term deficit.

“When we needed [to cut] money, we committed the cardinal sin
of treating him like any other mere mortal,” Obey said of Duncan.

Obey, who helped shepherd last year's massive Recovery Act through Congress, recently succeeded in adding $23 billion in domestic spending to a must-pass war funding bill that's still under consideration. The money includes $10 billion to avert teacher layoffs and $5 billion for Pell grants to low-income college students. But the White House has been wary of supporting anything that could be labeled "stimulus," and Republicans and moderate Democrats, particularly in the narrowly divided Senate, are demanding that the non-war money be paid for with cuts elsewhere or put off entirely. So, among many other items, Obey used a $500 million cut to “Race to the Top” as part of the money to pay for the $23 billion. 

Obey and others said they gave the White House fair warning about their proposed cuts and invited the administration to offer alternatives. Obey said that the first recommendation from the administration, never acted on, was cutting money for food stamps, because the price of food was lower than originally projected. The White House budget office didn’t respond to questions about the proposed cut yesterday.

While Duncan had been praising Obey’s efforts to boost teacher funding, the cut prompted the White House veto threat, which singled out “Race to the Top” and $300 million in cuts to other programs the administration called “education reform.”

“When we needed [to cut] money, we committed the cardinal sin of treating him like any other mere mortal,” Obey said of Duncan, noting that the bill would still net the Department of Education nearly $15 billion.

Meanwhile, Republicans and “school reform” supporters said that Obey’s move was designed to help teachers’ unions, which have an uneasy relationship with “Race to the Top.” Some say this fight is more about targeting the administration's education agenda, not a line-item in the budget.

"There is a desire among some in the Democratic Party, under the influence of the unions . . . to back Duncan and Obama off," said Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform. "You have to have lived under a rock the last year and a half to believe anyone who tells you that's not part of it."

“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.”

The unions say they learned about the cuts only after Obey posted them online, and Obey said he’s hardly a water carrier. “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,” Obey said. “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.”

Obey’s fellow House Democrats agreed with his logic: They ignored the veto threat and voted for Obey’s approach, 236 to 15. The whole controversy is likely to be rendered moot as the spotlight shifts to the Senate, where Obama allies are trying to find other ways of funding the teachers’ jobs. But it could still send a House icon into retirement with a bad taste in his mouth.

For sure, the curmudgeonly Obey is no stranger to political jousting. The son of a roofing factory worker who grew up in rough-hewn Wausau, Wis., Obey was attracted to politics by older New Deal Democrats and anti-Vietnam War liberals. Since his arrival in Washington as a youthful lawmaker in 1969 at the start of the Nixon administration, Obey has leveled salvos at Republican and Democratic presidents alike. He vigorously opposed President Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement and derided his health care plan for falling well short of the need. In 2006 he dismissed President George W. Bush’s budget as “wrong-headed and embarrassing.” He dubbed President Obama a “crown prince” shortly after Obama’s 2008 election, and in April 2009 warned the president that he would not provide a blank check for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, Obey has shown a knack and a willingness to forge important budget, social policy and foreign assistance deals, usually with several sharpened No. 2 pencils in his shirt pocket — first as chairman of the Foreign Operations subcommittee and then as ranking Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Working with the administration of Republican President George H.W. Bush following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Obey helped engineer American policy and aid to Eastern Europe. He was instrumental in boosting spending for the National Institutes of Health and occupational safety programs. And he helped pass a bipartisan budget deal during the Clinton years that led to three consecutive years of budget surpluses.

Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., a senior member of the committee who likely would succeed Obey next year provided the Democrats retain control of the House, said, “David is a strong individual, a strong personality and he plays for keeps.”