June 2010

Obey Retirement Shakes up Appropriations Committee, House

Dave Obey
U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis.


“I’m bone tired,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., in early May when he announced his retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives after serving since 1969. The Wisconsin democrat has been chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee since the Democrats took control of the House in 2006 and also has served since then as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, which oversees the National Institutes of Health.

Obey has been viewed widely as a friend of the NIH, but the agency is not his only passion— for example, he also is very devoted to education issues. He once excoriated Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology staff for too single-mindedly advocating for NIH funding over other social programs he considered equally important.

Obey received Research!America’s public service award this past April. The award ceremony was most memorable for the musical duet he performed with NIH Director Francis Collins. Obey is an excellent harmonica player, and his performance with Collins (guitar, vocals) on a parody of “Summertime,” made the evening particularly noteworthy, although a recording contract is not likely to be forthcoming.

Obey typically has won re-election by 60 percent or more during his 40 years of service. This year, he was facing Ashland County District Attorney Sean P. Duffy, who, according to Politico.com, was running “an uphill campaign” against Obey. However, other observers were not so sanguine; the New York Times characterized the race as likely the most competitive Obey had faced in years. (He and other senior democrats have been targeted by the GOP, and Duffy has been endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.) But, Obey strongly denied he was leaving because of his opponent, saying he had never walked away from a fight in his life.

Obey’s departure, however, is a blow to House Democrats as they face political headwinds in a tough political year.

Obey’s likely successor as Appropriations Committee chair is U.S. Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash. Dicks supposedly has made his wishes known to the Democratic leadership that he wants the job, and, barring something currently unknown, the job likely will be his next January, assuming the Democrats keep control of the House following the November elections. Dicks is from the 6th Congressional District of Washington, the northwest corner of the state. He is currently chairman of the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies and also sits on the Subcommittee on Defense as well as the Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.

Dicks is likely to bring a change of style to the chairmanship. Obey was respected widely but has a prickly streak and is, according to the Almanac of American Politics, not one to “suffer fools gladly.” Dicks— while also respected for his long tenure and knowledge of the House as an institution (he was elected in 1976 after serving 10 years as a top aide to Senator Warren Magnuson)— also is well liked.

Dicks also is a strong supporter of the military. The Bremerton Naval Shipyard— the largest naval facility in the Pacific Northwest— is in his district, and he maintains the traditional strong support for Boeing. According to the Almanac, “he has a moderate voting record and has been considered more supportive of military spending and an interventionist foreign policy than most House democrats.” Still, his ratings as a legislator are in the 90s from leftwing groups such as Americans for Democratic Action (90) and the American Civil Liberties Union (91), and in the low teens or single digits from rightwing groups such as the National Taxpayers Union (6) and the American Conservative Union (0). It seems clear from these rankings that no one is likely to mistake him for a blue dog democrat.

Assuming Dicks does not want to retain chairmanship of the L/HHS subcommittee, next in line for that job with Obey’s departure would be U.S. Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y. Lowey has been a member of the L/HHS subcommittee since the mid-90s and was elected to the House from White Plains in 1988. Another possible chair is U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn.

Peter Farnham (pfarnham@asbmb.org) is director of public affairs at ASBMB.

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