Rep. George Miller of California has announced that, after 40 years in the House, he will not seek re-election this fall. The House will lose a rare and valued leader; progressives will miss a true champion.
Big George’s passions were clear in the committees he has led in the House, where he served as chair of the Select Committee on Youth and Families, the Committee on Natural Resources, and the Committee on Education and Labor.
But his brief has been far broader even than that. For four decades, he has been the indispensable backbone and invaluable strategist of progressives in the House. Many legislators come simply to hold office. Some come to make ideological points. Some are satisfied with being dissenters. Only a rare few combine a passion for justice and a mastery of legislative mysteries with the personality and energy that can make things happen. That has been George Miller, large in size, in vision, in savvy and in sheer cussed persistence. George has been Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s closest ally and adviser. He has made things happen.
Elected as part of the Watergate class in 1974 at the age of 29, George Miller was a populist before populism was fashionable. He devoted himself to fighting for working families, sponsoring path-breaking legislation on children’s nutrition, childhood education, worker rights, environmental protection and much more. From his first days, he has been a clear and forceful critic of wrong-headed American interventions, from Reagan’s folly in Nicaragua and El Salvador to Bush’s calamity in Iraq.
He understood early on the race to the bottom that our corporate globalization strategies were producing, and led the dissent to corporate trade accords while championing worker rights at home and abroad. He is now leading the effort to raise the minimum wage, index it to inflation and redress the injustice done to “tipped” workers. His most passionate commitment has been to insuring that every child has the opportunity to learn, from universal preschool to effective public education to affordable college.
Big George has been an effective partisan against the harsh conservatism of this time, but his passion has been to make America better. He has been prepared to take on Democratic presidents as well as Republicans. He has been able to forge deals with Republicans as well as Democrats to make some good happen. He has been a champion of labor who was willing to challenge teachers unions when he thought it necessary.
A man of the House, Big George often put himself on the line. He challenged the owners of virtual slave camps in Micronesia to their face. He marched against apartheid in South Africa and joined the line with workers protesting Wal-Mart’s wages. He helped expose Augusto Pinochet’s torture chambers in Chile and America’s shameful complicity in them. He successfully took on asbestos executives, for-profit colleges, coddled agribusiness, Big Oil and King Coal.
Little is more frustrating than being part of the minority in the House of Representatives, where the majority controls everything from the schedule to what even can come to a vote. For Big George, the dysfunctional years of a Tea Party Republican majority focused on tearing things down rather than building anything have been particularly dispiriting.
But characteristically, he announced his retirement by detailing the fights he has teed up over the next year. He leads the effort to raise the minimum wage, having finally dragged the White House to fight for a double-digit – $10.10 – minimum indexed to inflation. He is pushing to overturn the obscene Republican refusal to extend emergency jobless benefits.
He is the president’s leading ally in the House in the effort to make preschool available for every child. He will lead the House fight on making college more affordable in the Higher Education Act reauthorization. He will continue the search for effective education reform.
He will stand with the president on immigration reform, and help lead the opposition to the corporate trade treaties the administration is gearing up to peddle.
George Miller will be missed. His big shoes will be hard to fill. Today’s Washington is a corrupt and corrupting place. Strong leaders with integrity are an endangered species. The House is about to lose a great one, and it will be a smaller place and this a smaller city without him.