Tribute to a Great Political Leader: George Miller

by John Lawrence

For my first 30 years on Capitol Hill, I worked for the congressman on whose initial campaign I had volunteered and with whom I came to Washington in 1975, George Miller of California. 

George Miller announced last Monday that his current term in the House, his 20th, would be his last.  Having arrived on Capitol Hill at the age of 29, thinking, as he often said, that “back East meant Reno,” Miller will depart Dean of the California delegation, the 5th most senior Member of the House, and the most accomplished legislator of his generation.

He had a long political pedigree — his dad was a very prominent California state senator and his grandfather a local official.  His formidable physical presence enhanced his questioning of a hostile witness before one of the three committees he chaired. But George never morphed into the dreaded  congressional prima donna. True, he could reduce a witness (or a staff person) to a quivering mass of jelly (he once threw a heavy book at me when I challenged him on an issue), but the tantrum never lasted long, often ending with a grudging hug.

The fanatical loyalty of his long-serving staff is due, in large part, to a conviction that George is one of us, not just “the boss.”  He was not hesitant about exercising his office, but he never completely shed the staff persona he developed working in Sacramento for Majority Leader George Moscone.  He made the office coffee, sorted the mail, respected staff members’ family needs, and maintained a novice staffer’s healthy dose of outrage.

He repaid that loyalty by backing his staff 100%, reliably shouldering the Member’s burden of turning a staffer’s obsession, if reasonable, into public law.   When a staffer came up with a good idea for a bill, George would invariably declare, “Let’s do that!” And whether it took an afternoon or five years, as it sometimes did, Miller stuck with the issue, and usually prevailed, often with strong bipartisan support.   

Many have asked why George never sought a leadership position or ran for higher office.  Such ideas were occasionally entertained.  In 1984, I speculated about a John-Glenn-George Miller ticket (think of the slogan: “In the mood for Glenn-Miller ’84”).  Wisely, he did not encourage that line of thinking.  Others encouraged him to challenge Dick Gephardt for Democratic Leader to provide a more aggressive alternative to Newt Gingrich.  He declined, and Gephardt elevated him to the leadership, both to mine his active intellect and, I suspect, to keep an eye on a potential rival.

George chronically shunned self-promotion for a Senate seat the governorship or Leadership in the House, all of which were encouraged by others.  The incessant travel and heavyweight fundraising was unappealing, and he preferred to devote his time to the issues that fired his blood: children, families, workers, health care, family policy, the environment, a sensible foreign policy.  He aspired for his friends to rise in power, and many did, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and longtime D.C. roommates Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin.

And so decade after decade, George remained in the turbulence of the House, plunging into battles including the minimum wages, enhancing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, expanding early childhood services and reforming oil and gas leasing, battling student loan companies and subsidized irrigators, challenging human rights abuses at home and around the world.  He has been fearless, never flinching from challenging hometown oil companies, deep pocket agribusinesses, sweatshop operators or even South American dictators (one of whom once sent an agent to track Miller in California).

Miller is a congressional workhorse, not a show horse, and a formidable amount of the legislation he authored became law.  His chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee (2007-2010) is the most productive Committee record in U.S. history, according to the Congressional Research Service, belying the assertion that Congress is an unworkable institution.  (He also chaired Natural Resources and Select Committee on Children he persuaded Speaker Tip O’Neill to create.)

Contrary to the “tax and spend liberal” label which twenty challengers tried to pin on him, George was a pioneer in targeting the deficit and documented the cost effectiveness of early intervention with children — good science and good economics.  He reads the business sections of newspapers first, and his admiration for business discipline prompted him to originate Pay As You Go deficit reduction in 1982, which helped balance the budget in the 1990s before the new GOP majority chucked it out, with disastrous results. 

His long career has produced innumerable memorable moments, and anyone with whom he has served has a favorite. One, which seems emblematic to me, was a late night floor speech against a restrictive Republican floor procedure.  Recognized for a brief speech, George excoriated the majority for promoting “fascism” on the House floor, ignoring the presiding officer who was energetically banging the gavel with increasing vigor as George exceeded his allotted time.  George’s voice escalated in tandem with the acting Speaker’s incessant hammering until the top of the gavel broke off and somersaulted into the well of the House. With a sly grin, George mischievously ended his extended speech with the standard caveat, “I yield back the balance of my time.”  

Thirty years ago, George’s mentor Rep. Phil Burton died suddenly and as we drafted his remarks for the memorial service, George declared, Phil always liked to say his ‘balls roared with injustice.’  I want to include that in my remarks.”    

“No,” I demurred. “That isn’t appropriate for a funeral.” Unhappily, George relented and the words went unspoken.  But as I consider summarizing his outstanding career, the words not only ring true but singularly appropriate to George Miller himself.  Indeed, his balls do “roar with injustice,” which is why there is little doubt that George continue to promote solutions that improve the lives of millions of Americans who will never know his name or how effectively he has served his nation.