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The end of an era of congressional comity

For a combined three-quarters of a century, David Obey and Christopher Dodd walked the halls of Congress; they are both retiring this year on a high.

Obey, a 72-year-old Wisconsin representative, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He guided the fiscal stimulus package; though unpopular, most economic experts say it helped avoid a much deeper recession.

Dodd, 66, is a five-term senator from Connecticut. With House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., Dodd authored the financial-regulatory bill that rewrote the rules for Wall Street after the crisis. He also played a major role in the passage of the health care overhaul.

In separate interviews, Dodd and Obey reflected on rich experiences and contemporary concerns. Both are liberal Democrats — Obey more so — who care deeply about Congress as an institution, have a track record of working with political opposites, and lament that the legislative branch and much of the political system are dysfunctional these days.

Neither disputes some of the negative views about Congress; they partially blame the news media, particularly the lack of coverage.

"Newspapers have been taken over by chains, and if they cover members at all it's as politicians, not legislators," said Obey, who represents a sprawling northern Wisconsin district. As for 24-7 cable television news, "One minute they will be talking about an important piece of legislation, then they'll go to a story on modeling underwear."

Dodd recalled that there used to be a dozen Connecticut reporters who covered the delegation; today there is one. No longer, he said, do home-state reporters show up to cover a "dull hearing that isn't going to be a news story, but the reporter learns about the subject matter as I learn about it."

The biggest difference, however, is the erosion of comity and relationships. They both joined Congress — Obey in 1969 in a special election to take the seat of President Nixon's defense secretary, Melvin Laird, and Dodd as a House member five years later — during the divisive Vietnam War, with the memories of the bitter civil rights struggles still fresh.

Over the past two decades, Dodd said, there has been a "stripping of the socialization, which is always what made this place function." He has a prodigious legislative record and said the 2010 health care bill marked the first time he ever passed a measure without a Republican sponsor.

Obey recalled working cooperatively with conservative Republican lawmakers such as Bob Livingston of Louisiana, Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and New York's Jack Kemp, as well as House leaders of that party such as Gerald Ford of Michigan and Bob Michel of Illinois. Asked if there's any Republican with whom he has a good relationship today, he responded, "If I cited them it would hurt them in their caucus."

Dodd remembers how he got his master's and Ph.D. in the Senate: through long hours in the members' dining room, where he sat enthralled listening to the old bulls such as Louisiana Sen. Russell Long or Mississippi's John Stennis, or the always thoughtful Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

"As a new member, you just sat there and absorbed it as they would rib each other and sometimes have a heated debate about a subject," he said. "It was as good an education as you could get about the place."

Today "there's no one in that room."

Both recalled fondly some of the legislative giants they've seen. They agreed that Ted Kennedy was unsurpassed as an effective senator, and Dodd said that Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole are among his all-stars. Obey's mentor was the late Richard Bolling of Missouri, perhaps the most astute politician-scholar to serve in the House.

The Badger State lawmaker has served with eight speakers and said that Nancy Pelosi of California was the most effective: "She's tough and principled; we would not have health care without her determination."

On presidents, both warmed at the mention of Ford, who was in office for less than 2 1/2 years. "In terms of healing the country, he did a hell of a job," Obey said, "including the pardon of Richard Nixon, which I opposed at the time. I was wrong."

The Connecticut senator, who clashed frequently with the Reagan White House, fondly recalled the 40th president and his remarkable optimism.

Obey and Dodd believe that President Obama has enjoyed as auspicious a start as any of his predecessors. "As Pat Moynihan once said," Dodd recalled, "a president only gets 20 months from inauguration to the first midterm election to do anything of real significance. That's the window. Obama's done it."

And where did Moynihan relate that? In the Senate Dining Room.