President Obama is about to badly alienate antiwar Democrats by sending more troops to Afghanistan. So who will lead the charge on their behalf against the new policy? David Obey seems to want the job. The Wisconsin congressman, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and opposes the troop increase, put forth legislation last week that proposes to finance the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by raising taxes. “I went through the Vietnam years when the cost of that damn war drained away the ability to do anything else,” he told Politico. “I chair the committee that has to say no to effort after effort to rebuild economy.” Few think the legislation could pass Congress. But don’t expect Obey to drop the matter. The 40-year House veteran has endured more than his share of Washington fights, and he doesn’t have a history of backing down.
After being elected to Congress in 1969 at the tender age of 30, Obey rankled his senior colleagues by pushing a number of ethics reforms. He made sure that committee hearings, often held behind closed doors, were open to the public and corralled colleagues into disclosing their financial affairs in order to reveal potential conflicts of interest. In 2002, Obey sparred with the Bush administration, which tried to humiliate him by including a color photo of an ice sled on its 2003 budget plan—a reference to the congressman’s earmark for an $80,000 rescue sled to be used on frozen lakes in his home district. Obey responded that the administration had “a severe attitude problem.” At the same time, he attacked Bush for not sharing information about homeland security with Congress. “No information, no money,” he said. Obey won a partial victory when homeland security chief Tom Ridge met behind closed doors with a House Appropriations subcommittee.
But it was the Iraq war that truly brought Obey into the national spotlight. In 2007, against all odds, he pushed a supplemental war spending bill that included a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq through the House. He lashed out at antiwar protesters who opposed the bill, calling them “idiot liberals.” He also disseminated false information to various Democratic colleagues in order to ferret out leaks. (He apologized for the former but not the latter.) The measure was vetoed by Bush, but Obey refused to let it go. Months later, he introduced an income tax bill to help pay for the Iraq war. Arguing in favor of the tax, he chastised his opponents: “Some people are being asked to pay with their lives or their faces or their hands or their arms or their legs. It doesn’t seem too much to ask the average taxpayer to pay $30 for the cost of the war so we don’t have to shove it off on our kids.”
Now Obey sounds like a man who would welcome the mantle of chief antiwar spokesman. “I’m not president,” Obey recently said, “but I can certainly try to influence policy any way I can.”