Center for American Progress

ADVISORY: Forum on the New Obey Autobiography and the Evolution of the American Congress
Press Advisory

ADVISORY: Forum on the New Obey Autobiography and the Evolution of the American Congress

Representative David R. Obey (D-WI)
Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute Resident Scholar
Richard Cohen, National Journal Congressional Reporter 

Moderated by: Scott Lilly, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

Congress is the first branch of American government and many view it as the centerpiece of our democracy. But the American Congress has changed dramatically in recent decades. Understanding those changes and how they affect the country and our ability to govern ourselves is central to building a more effective and more enduring democracy.

Rep. David Obey (D-WI) offers us a unique perspective in understanding how our Congress has changed over the past four decades in a new autobiography, Raising Hell for Justice, the Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive, due to be released the week of Sept. 10. The Center for American Progress will host a forum on Sept. 10 to talk about the Obey book and the problems facing our legislative branch. Joining Obey will be American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein, the co-author of the recent critique of Congress titled Broken Branch, and National Journal reporter Richard Cohen, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, to discuss “How Congress Evolves: The Perspective of a House Appropriator.”

The panel is expected to talk not only about the changes that have taken place but the forces behind those changes and the challenges facing the current Congress in repairing “the broken branch.”

David S. Broder of The Washington Post called Obey’s book, “more than a shrewd and candid inside look at Congress…a great testament to the enduring values of our system of representative government, a reminder of what public service can really mean when rendered by a person of courage and character.” Mark Shields says, “Obey suffers neither fools nor cheats. . . . Like its author, this book is passionate, honest, and funny.”

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institute commented, “Raising Hell for Justice is a powerful and enlightening political memoir by one of America’s all-time great legislators.”

Monday, September 10, 2007
Program: 9:30am to 11:00am
Admission is free.

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David Obey’s working-class background and progressive values drive his work as Wisconsin’s 7th District congressman. He believes that every hard-working American deserves an equal shot at the American Dream. That is why Obey strongly supports increased investments in education, health care, and job training; fights to protect the rights of workers; promotes reform to make government responsive to the people; and advocates for tax cuts that benefit all Americans, not just the well-off.

Obey grew up in Wausau where he and his wife, Joan, attended St. James Catholic School and graduated from Wausau East High School. Both received Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Obey completed his graduate work in Soviet politics at the University of Wisconsin and expected to teach Russian and Chinese politics before he took a turn toward public service.

The same year that Obey married Joan he ran for the State Legislature and won. He served three terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly, representing Marathon County, and played a key role in creating Wisconsin’s Technical College Districts and the state’s public broadcasting network. He was also an early sponsor of Wisconsin’s pioneering Homestead Tax Relief Act for seniors and served on the state commission that established Wisconsin’s first Medicaid law.

Obey came to Congress in 1969, succeeding the newly appointed Defense Secretary, Mel Laird. Obey immediately became a leading spokesman for political and congressional reform to make government more accountable to its citizens. His efforts led to his chairmanship of a congressional commission that expanded financial disclosure for members of Congress, placed strict limits on outside income members could earn, and ended the practice of retiring members pocketing their surplus campaign funds.

Obey now serves as the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which makes spending decisions for every federal discretionary program. As the chairman of the Committee, Obey spearheads efforts to invest in education; expand access to quality, affordable health care; protect the environment; and strengthen homeland security. His leadership position on the Committee allows him to sit on each of its 12 subcommittees, which are responsible for producing the annual “must pass” spending bills.

Obey also understands the need for fiscally responsible budget policies. He fought tirelessly against unsound policies that created exploding deficits in the 1980s. Today, Obey is one of the House’s leading advocates against current budget policies that have squandered the surpluses of the late 1990s, exploded the deficit, and endangered Social Security and Medicare. He strongly favors reducing the size of recent tax cuts that only benefit those making more than $1 million a year and using those funds to reduce the deficit, invest in homeland security, and provide for other critical domestic needs.

Obey has been recognized by numerous Wisconsin and national organizations for his work, including the National Association of Community Health Centers, the National Farmers Union, the National Mental Health Association, the 7th Congressional District AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the National Council of Senior Citizens, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Wilderness Society, and Common Cause.

In his spare time, Obey enjoys playing the harmonica and performs with his two sons and some friends in a bluegrass band, The Capitol Offenses, which has recorded three albums.

Norman J. Ornstein is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He also serves as an election analyst for CBS News. In addition, Ornstein writes a weekly column called “Congress Inside Out” for Roll Call newspaper. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and other major publications, and regularly appears on television programs like “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Nightline,” and “Charlie Rose.”

Ornstein also dabbles in comedy. He began worked with Al Franken in 1992, when he served as Comedy Central’s pollster and commentator covering the party conventions and the election for “Indecision ’92.” He has also done comedy with satirist Mark Russell.

He serves as senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission, working to ensure that our institutions of government can be maintained in the event of a terrorist attack on Washington; his efforts in this area are recounted in a profile of him in the June 2003 Atlantic Monthly. His campaign finance working group of scholars and practitioners helped shape the major law, known as McCain/Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. Legal Times referred to him as “a principal drafter of the law” and his role in its design and enactment was profiled in the February 2004 issue of Washington Lawyer.

He co-directed a multi-year effort, called the Transition to Governing Project, to create a better climate for governing in the era of the permanent campaign, and is currently co-directing a project on election reform. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Broadcasting Service and the Campaign Legal Center and of the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. He was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.

His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; Intensive Care: How Congress Shapes Health Policy, and Debt and Taxes: How America Got Into Its Budget Mess and What to Do About It. The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track, co-authored by Thomas E. Mann, was named one of the best books of 2006 by The Washington Post.

Richard E. Cohen, 59, has been congressional reporter for National Journal since 1977. In that position, he writes about both legislative and electoral politics and deals regularly with a broad cross-section of Members of Congress. He joined the magazine’s staff in 1973. He was the 1990 winner of the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.

In addition to his magazine work, Cohen is an author of numerous books about Congress. Since 2001, he has been co-author with Michael Barone of The Almanac of American Politics, the biennial “bible” of 535 Members of Congress and their districts, which is published by National Journal Group. His biography of former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), the long-time chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was published by Ivan R. Dee Publisher of Chicago in 1999. His previous titles include Washington at Work: Back Rooms and Clean Air, on the enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which was initially published by Macmillan Publishing Co. in 1992. In 1993, he authored another book for Macmillan, Changing Course in Washington: Clinton and the New Congress, on how President Clinton and the Democrats in Congress initially sought to change the direction of government. In 1981, he wrote Congressional Leadership: Seeking a New Role, a monograph published by Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also has been a frequent contributor to other publications, and he has been a regular guest on TV and cable news programs. He has served many years as a member of the executive committee of the congressional periodical galleries, including as chairman.

He graduated in 1969 from Brown University, where he was publisher of the Brown Daily Herald, and in 1972 from Georgetown University Law Center. During law school, he was an aide to U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA). A native of Northampton, Massachusetts, he attended local schools there. He and his wife Lyn Schlitt, who is Director of External Relations at the U.S. International Trade Commission, live in McLean, Virginia. Their daughter is a student at Stetson University in DeLand Florida.


Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes and does research in wide range of areas including governance, federal budgeting, national security and the economy. He joined the Center in March of 2004 after 31 years of service with the United States Congress. He served as Clerk and Staff Director of the House Appropriations Committee, Minority Staff Director of that Committee, Executive Director of the House Democratic Study Group, Executive Director of the Joint Economic Committee and Chief of Staff in the Office of Congressman David Obey.

Prior to his service with the Congress, Lilly served as Director of Campaign Services for the Democratic National Committee, Central States Coordinator in the McGovern Presidential Campaign and as a bill drafter for the Missouri legislature.

He served two years in the U.S. Army and is a graduate of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

During his career, he has been engaged in a wide array of policy matters ranging across the entire spectrum of government activities. These have included counterterrorism, homeland security, efforts to reform American schools and the financing of federal scientific activities. He has worked on various efforts to reform the legislative process in Congress and served as a political and legislative strategist to the Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee and the House Democratic Leadership.