Miller's Tale

In a year marked by Democrats' increasingly audacious push-back against Republicans, one move stood out for its legislative moxie and for the very public defeat it dealt the president. Nine days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf, George W. Bush suspended the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, a law Republicans have wanted to do away with for decades. The law requires federal contractors to pay workers the prevailing wage in the community where they work, and it would have ensured that companies like Halliburton that were tasked with doing post-hurricane clean-up work couldn't reduce wages offered to the newly destitute citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Democrats complained, but they didn't do anything -- until a month and a half later, when George Miller, a little-heralded California congressman, used an obscure provision of a 1976 law to force Bush to reverse course. The law, the National Emergency Act, was the Watergate-era product of Senate concerns about Richard Nixon's imperial presidency, and it reclaimed for Congress power to countermand the president's authority to declare a national emergency and suspend laws. By introducing a joint congressional resolution to terminate a president's emergency declaration, a legislator could be guaranteed a fast-track vote on it, and restore any laws whose suspension Congress did not support.

Signed into law by President Gerald Ford, the provision had lain dormant for 29 years, forgotten until Miller found it was uniquely suited to our present era of imperial and imperious presidential action. Miller knew that he had enough support from labor-friendly (or labor-fearful) Republicans that the suspension of Davis-Bacon would be voted down in Congress once the Emergency Act's trigger allowed the open vote that the Republican leadership was refusing to hold. Bush quickly realized the same thing and decided to spare himself the humiliation. Within two weeks of Miller's action, Bush reinstated Davis-Bacon. Labor leaders cheered, and Democrats across the country perked up at the sight of the president outfoxed. But for Miller, it was just another day at the office.

* * *

George Miller is the most important Democratic tactician you've never heard of. In the past year, there has been precisely one lengthy profile of him inside Washington, and none in any of the major national papers. And yet, in an environment where Democrats have been almost wholly stymied by the Republicans' iron grip on power, Miller has repeatedly come up with innovative ways to defend progressive interests. “They have so corrupted the rules of the House of Representatives that you essentially have to engage in guerilla activity to try … to get a vote on a matter,” says Miller, who has become expert in the range of alternatives available during this time of one-party rule. “We've just tried to be as creative as we possibly could be.”

When Republicans refused to conduct congressional oversight hearings, Miller requested agency inspector-general investigations into Department of Education funding of propaganda in American newspapers, and into a highly unusual agreement between Wal-Mart and the Department of Labor. He pioneered the first ever “e-hearing” when he couldn't get his committee to hold an official one on the attempt by United Airlines to default on its pension obligations. Then, he parlayed the more than 2,000 letters he got from United employees through that e-hearing into Republican votes on a later amendment, which passed the House (though not the Senate), backing the employees.

He even managed, in 2004, to use a simple Republican failure to formally dismiss a conference committee to force a vote on an amendment -- attached to a bill that had been abandoned! -- dealing with onerous new overtime rules, thereby forcing Republicans into an on-the-record vote on the issue. “He's a legislator, not a press hound,” says his California colleague Howard Berman with admiration. “He isn't doing things for the purpose of getting known, he's doing things for the purpose of having an impact.”

Representing northern California's 7th District, which stretches from the Mare Island Naval Base to anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan's hometown of Vacaville, Miller has quietly become one of the most respected and powerful players in the House. In addition to co-chairing the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and being the ranking member on the Education and Workforce Committee, Miller is a close friend and strategic adviser of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom he's known for more than 30 years.

"He's certainly the most influential Democrat in the House who's not in the leadership and maybe more influential than some who are," says Henry Waxman, who's also known Miller for three decades, since they came to Congress in 1975 as Watergate babies. Most of that idealistic generation is now gone, leaving Miller the 11th most senior member in the 435-person House, and one of the most legislatively experienced members in the Democratic Caucus. National Journal magazine, last July, dubbed him the Democrat's “shadow leader.”

Miller himself pooh-poohs this when we meet in the homey office he's occupied for the past dozen years. True to his reputation for modesty, in a room with two plush leather chairs and one small functional one, the silver-haired Miller, despite his hulking frame, seats himself in the small one. The walls are lined with progressive posters from the 1950s -- when his father, former California State Senator George Miller Jr., held office and fought for early anti-discrimination laws to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s to a “No Blood for Oil: Bring the Troops Home” poster that dates to the Persian Gulf War. (There are also Bruce Springsteen posters.) A small plaster statue of Phillip Burton looks out over the room from atop a bookshelf like a beatific, if passionately gesticulating, guardian spirit.

Miller is a protégé of Burton's, the legendary California legislator who narrowly lost the 1976 race to be majority leader of the House, but nonetheless accumulated more power than any liberal before him, according to John Jacobs' biography A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton. Burton, like Lyndon Johnson, was a master wheeler and dealer, who loved using the arcana of procedure and whipped up bipartisan alliances to pursue his progressive agenda. Miller has followed in Burton's footsteps as a deft legislator and advocate for the environment -- awards from the Natural Resource Defense Council and Friends of the Earth dot his office -- and working people. “If we could clone him,” Pelosi says she's often told people over the years, “everything would be right with the world.”

* * *

Miller's use of the Watergate-era law to undo Bush's suspension of Davis-Bacon took him back to one of the first pieces of legislation he'd voted for upon joining the House, though he did not recall the law at first. Asked how he unearthed it, Miller quipped: “Great staff.” Adds a Miller aide: “When you're in the minority on the House side, it's impossible to get a vote. It's impossible to do anything. Miller doesn't accept that.”

It took Miller and his staff three weeks of discussions after coming upon a September 2005 Congressional Research Service report on the history of emergency provisions to figure out how to use the law and present it in such a way that the House parliamentarian would accept it. “We had a lot of negotiations with the parliamentarian who basically said, ‘I don't believe it, but I think you guys are right, you probably are entitled to a vote,'” recalls Miller.

It was a vintage Miller move. “It was very skillful how he did that,” says David Bonior, the chairman of American Rights at Work and the former House Democratic whip. “There was no support for doing away with the prevailing wage. He knew there were 30 or 40 Republicans who supported [him], and he put the pressure on them to pressure the president so we could get this done.”

Miller has been battling the Tom DeLay machine since before Bush took office. In the late 1990s, he was the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, where he spent four years fighting the corrupt network of lobbyist Jack Abramoff in an attempt to protect the rights of immigrant guest workers brought into the sweatshops of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, by extending mainland labor and immigration laws to the islands. At the time, he didn't even know that Abramoff was the man behind the curtain. “We didn't know we were pushing against them because they were underground at the time,” recalls Miller. “We didn't know why we couldn't get a bill out of our committee or to the House floor when it passed with bipartisan support in the Senate.”

But now that he -- and the rest of the Congress -- know, Miller hopes more congressional investigations can get to the bottom of the matter. “I want to know how was it that we got screwed in that effort,” says Miller. And if the Republican House continues to avoid its mandated oversight role, then Democrats will just have to be more creative, he says: “Were going to try to show the same kind of persistence we showed in the overtime fight and the Davis-Bacon fight.”

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.

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