POLITICS

George Miller Spent 40 Years In Congress. How Long Will His Legacy Last Without Him?

02/17/2015 07:37 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2015

On a balmy Saturday morning in September, George Miller is seated in the backyard of his Martinez, California, home, sipping herbal tea and enjoying a taste of life to come.

It’s quiet here, serene. Miller’s ranch-style house is tucked away in the hills about an hour northeast of San Francisco. It has been home to Miller and his wife, Cynthia, since his early days as a member of Congress. There's a simplicity to its dark wood floors, marble countertops and Asian-inspired art and pottery, with virtually no clutter in the living area.

The brown and pale green interior mirrors the redwood trees outside. The backyard is enclosed by a fence that Miller built himself, and there’s little noise beyond the sounds of birds chirping high above. The only disruption comes when Cooper, a chalky white Australian labradoodle, bounds through the back door and playfully jumps at Miller's feet.

It all befits a man who loves nature and the outdoors.

Yet the setting is, in many ways, unfamiliar for Miller. He has spent most of the past 40 years 2,800 miles away in Washington, where he mastered the rough and tumble of politics. Although he laments the deterioration of Congress as an institution, for many years he thrived on the daily battles between Democrats and Republicans.

Miller himself was one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, a fearless and tireless champion for progressive causes: The environment. Women and children. The poor. He worked to craft some of the most significant legislation in recent history, including George W. Bush’s education initiative No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s landmark health care law. And he was instrumental in elevating the party's most influential leader, paving the way for Nancy Pelosi's historic election as House speaker.

Although his hair and signature mustache have grown white, Miller is still brimming with energy. At the age of 69, he looks ready to unleash another round of barnburner speeches, like those he famously gave on the House floor. It's clear from his voice that closing this chapter of his life has been difficult.

"I had no concept that it was 40 years. The whole thing seemed so compressed to me," he says. "To me, everything was yesterday."

When Miller announced a year ago that he would be retiring from Congress this January, the highest-ranking officials in Washington rushed to applaud his service. President Obama hailed his career and called him an "indispensable partner" in crafting the Affordable Care Act. Even his political adversaries praised Miller’s contributions and lamented his impending absence from the chamber.

"He's got a remarkable legacy," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told The Huffington Post. "I wish people that dislike Congress could meet someone like George Miller and just get to know him as a human being."

But for all his accolades and legislative achievements, Miller is leaving a Washington on shaky footing. He was elected in 1974 as part of a historic class of Democrats -- dubbed the “Watergate babies” -- whose first order of business was to restore the trust of a nation reeling from the scandal that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Yet today, Congress can barely function. Public distrust in and frustration with the federal government are once again at record highs. Vast sums of money pour into politics again. And even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, the American military is stretched thin. In many ways, the political climate has come full circle since Miller’s first days in office.

Miller may have entered Congress with a desire to fix Washington. But as he leaves, Washington is more broken than ever, and some of his most celebrated victories are under assault.

Rep. George Miller (far right, back wall) and his fellow Democrats applaud President Barack Obama after the Affordable Care Act signing at the White House on March 23, 2010. Miller ranks that law, which he co-authored, among his greatest accomplishments. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When he was a member, Miller was not one to shy away from a confrontation. A fiery orator, he rarely held back for the sake of decorum. At various times his Republican colleagues asked for him to be censored. The sound of his booming, unapologetic voice became a trademark, producing much YouTube fodder -- and often leaving his staff guessing what words might come out of his mouth next.

"It’s a glorious day if you’re a fascist," Miller cried in 1995, railing against an appropriations bill that drastically cut the budget for programs affecting the poor, young and elderly.

The Republican congressman presiding over the floor at the time tried in vain to bring Miller to order, banging his gavel so furiously that it broke in two.

In 1999, Miller once again tested the gavel's sturdiness when, during an Education and the Workforce Committee hearing, he criticized an education official from Oregon over the state’s struggling efforts to help minority and disadvantaged children. Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), then chairman of the committee, told Miller repeatedly that his time had expired, chastised him for lecturing the witness and banged the gavel.

"Oh, bang it again if it will make you feel better," Miller exclaimed.

"I'll bang it, and it will be on your head," Goodling shot back.

Another memorable incident arose out of a debate over sending American troops to Bosnia in 1995. That day on the House floor, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) accused Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) of switching his vote and turning his back on the troops. As they left the chamber, a brawl erupted between the two. Standing nearby, Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) tried to jump in to help his California colleague, only to have Miller grab him around the neck.

"Don't even think about it," Miller told Dornan, leaving the argument to be settled with fists rather than words.

Capitol Police had to come break up the fight.

"Cunningham was just a bad guy and, well, he didn't know Moran very well," Miller recalled. "Of all the people you wouldn't want to get in a fight with, it's Jim Moran. He’s a buffalo."

Miller wasn't just a rabble-rouser when it came to Republicans. Sometimes he ruffled feathers within his own party.

In 1987, a civil war among Democrats stalled progress on a $1 trillion budget resolution. House liberals, including Miller, wanted to dramatically cut military spending under President Ronald Reagan and refused to accept a higher defense number brokered by party leaders. Miller and his roommate Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) helped tank a compromise and fled to their Capitol Hill row house to avoid a confrontation with Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas).

According to Miller, the two were panicked, wondering what wrath they might incur. It came in the form of a phone call from Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), then the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "He said, 'What the hell do you think you are doing?'," Miller recalled with a laugh. "And we thought, 'Oh, we're in big trouble.'"

By the time Miller announced his retirement, he had been throwing verbal punches for so long, it had become a central part of his political persona.

"You wouldn't want to get in the way of this guy," Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said last summer during a send-off event for his longtime friend and colleague.

The question Markey and other Miller associates had was whether someone with such an appetite for jousting could actually give it all up. Indeed, several weeks after leaving Congress in January, Miller is adjusting only fitfully to life on the outside. Obamacare and No Child Left Behind are once again center stage. But instead of being in the thick of the debates, he reads about them in the papers.

"Some of it I like and some of it I don't," Miller said. "But I'm not a member anymore."

After his family moved back to California in the 1980s, Rep. George Miller invited colleagues to rent space in his Capitol Hill row house. Left: Miller poses with his first roommates, then-Reps. Leon Panetta, Chuck Schumer and Marty Russo. Right: Miller stands with Sens. Dick Durbin and Schumer, who shared the house with him for over 30 years. (Photos courtesy of George Miller's office)

In his final months as a congressman, Miller hardly seemed like someone worn down by four decades of cross-continental flights and pitched legislative battles. He said he had no regrets about his occasionally churlish behavior, even as Congress has become outright dysfunctional. Yes, he threw tantrums on the floor. But he wasn't responsible for the current toxicity. After all, he knew when to cut the shtick.

"I also passed most of my legislation on a bipartisan basis among the most conservative members of the Republican caucus co-authoring that legislation," he said. “I'm fighting for every inch that I can make from the progressive side of the agenda." But he knew, he said, that “I'm not going to get every inch of what I want."

Miller's office is a tribute to the dual threads of his career: the partisan warrior and the legislative dealmaker. Dozens of framed pictures adorn his walls, depicting everything from Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to rainforests, Earth Day and the push to ban offshore drilling.

There's a host of campaign signs, from the bid by his friend Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) to become caucus chair to the 1980 presidential campaign by his mentor Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). There's even a poster from his own first, failed run for the California state Senate in 1969.

His family shows up. There they are outdoors in California, surrounded by trees and a lake. But there, too, is Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) -- once with the inhabitants of Animal House, the name of the Capitol Hill row house Miller shared with a number of other Democratic colleagues, and again as Miller applauds the speaker upon his retirement.

One piece of office furniture stands out: a brown leather barber's chair. It was a birthday gift from Miller's mother when he entered law school and lived in an apartment of less than 700 square feet. It has traveled with him ever since.

The most meaningful item, Miller said, is also perhaps the most humble. It’s a self-portrait drawn by a young, abused child -- a stick figure encaged in dramatically jagged lines.

"That was her world, and it tells you all you need to know about her world," Miller said. "But it also tells you what it would take to have this child get back to what we would consider a normal life and a chance."

Miller inherited his liberal politics from his father, George Miller Jr., a member of the California state legislature and leader of the state Democratic Party. The teenaged Miller would attend political events with his dad, and politicians and activists were regular guests at his parents’ home.

"He would say, 'We thought everybody had U.S. senators and labor unions to dinner in their households,'" recalled Gwen Regalia, a former mayor of Walnut Creek, California, who knew the father and worked with the son.

When his father died of a sudden heart attack in 1969, Miller ran for his seat in a special election -- a race he lost by 15 points. The next step was to earn his law degree while working as legislative assistant to George Moscone, then the state Senate majority leader.

Miller got his second chance five years later when he was just 29 years old. It was 1974. The Republican Party had been severely wounded by Watergate, and the Vietnam War's unpopularity had set the stage for a younger generation to ascend. After congressional district lines were redrawn and Democratic Rep. Jerry Waldie chose to run for governor instead of re-election, Miller jumped at the opening. He ran a campaign on two themes: ending the war and passing single-payer health care.

That election would be the first and only major challenge for Miller, who would be repeatedly re-elected in California’s 7th District -- and for his last term, the redrawn 11th District -- with never less than 60 percent of the vote. The blue-collar area east of San Francisco Bay was heavily Democratic, a factor that would enable him to push his agenda with little fear of a serious threat to his seat for the 40 years.

Miller and the other Watergate babies moved swiftly upon entering Congress. They pushed to overturn the seniority system and threw a number of lawmakers out of their committee chairmanships. They introduced sunshine laws that forced transparency on federal agencies and reformed ethics rules to include new limits on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffs. Campaign finance laws were overhauled, and the Federal Election Commission was established.

Miller soon positioned himself at the center of the action. His Capitol Hill row house became a meeting spot for legislative and political strategy sessions. Two of his teammates on the congressional basketball team, Russo and then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) became Miller’s first roommates. (Miller's wife had moved back to California with their children in the early 1980s, because their younger son preferred his school there.) Over the years, Animal House would host a number of other high-profile tenants, including Reps. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Like Schumer, Durbin stayed at the house even as he moved onto the Senate.

"We'd often have sports on the TV, we'd be sitting there in our shorts and talking about politics, talking about life, talking about kids, talking about sports, everything -- but a lot of politics," Schumer said. "Tip O'Neill would often call us at midnight and say, ‘All right, what trouble are you guys cooking up for me tomorrow? Give me a warning.’"

Not far from the townhouse, larger strategizing sessions would take place on Tuesday nights among what Miller referred to as a "dinner gang." The group included many friends who, like Miller, would rise in the ranks of Democratic leadership -- Schumer, Durbin, Russo, Panetta, Rep. Tom Foglietta (D-Pa.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). (Also like Miller, many are now retired.) In the early days, an Italian restaurant was their favorite meeting spot. Later it became Hunan Dynasty, a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol. Sometimes the group spent hours talking shop. On other nights, it was just a social gathering for people who missed home.

"It was a place to let down your hair and talk," Miller said.

The dinner became a setting for current and future leaders to network. One night, Tip O'Neill swung by to take questions from the members’ kids and tell tales from the old days. "Jesus, my son just roared," Miller said. "He couldn't believe he was in the presence of the speaker just eating spaghetti."

On another occasion, in January 1987, Miller introduced the company to someone who, he thought, had a promising future: Nancy Pelosi, the newly elected representative from a congressional district neighboring Miller’s. According to one dinner attendee, Miller told the assembled group that Pelosi would one day become the first woman speaker of the House.

More than a quarter century later, Miller recalled how he knew almost from the start that Pelosi was a rare talent. He merely acted on that impulse.

For both young lawmakers, entering politics was part of the family tradition. Pelosi and Miller shared a mentor in the legendary California Democratic congressman Phil Burton. And even prior to arriving in Congress, Pelosi had already become a notable figure in state politics.

Through Miller, she gained introductions to more than just the dinner gang in Washington. He also introduced Pelosi to influential groups and organizations where his seal of approval went a long way.

"He gave me a lot of confidence in my own success in the Congress," Pelosi remembered. "He made me realize that I did have something special to offer. ... The trust he placed in me meant a great deal."

When Democrats lost their House majority in 1994 -- a historic defeat after four decades in control -- Pelosi said Miller told her not to get discouraged. "George said just get out and do what you know you can do: win elections," she recalled.

That advice paid off. While running for House minority whip in 2001, Pelosi confided in Miller that she had her eyes on the chamber's top post.

"I don't think these boys know how to win," she said of the other aspirants.

When Democrats retook the House in 2006 and it was clear that Pelosi would become speaker, Miller was "on cloud nine," Schumer said. "He had tears in his eyes."

"Their friendship was legendary," said Durbin. "He would call himself Hamburger Helper. He really cared for her and what she was trying to achieve."

Rep. George Miller and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi listen during a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on Feb. 2, 2011. Sen. Dick Durbin described Miller and Pelosi's friendship as "legendary." (Photo: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

As Pelosi ascended the ranks of power, Miller rode alongside her, becoming a prominent presence in some of the top legislative debates and serving as co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee for 10 years. But why, in the most un-Washingtonian of fashions, did he never make a play for the speakership himself?

"I think George could've been speaker," said Schumer. "But he's just a decent, honorable guy, and Nancy was his friend, and he thought she'd be a great speaker."

If Miller ever had ambitions to be speaker, he never shared them with Pelosi, as she recalled. Nor is it something that he regrets now that he's left office. The demands of the speakership, he said, "looked like too much management."

"It takes a skill that I don't have," he said. "I wanted my best friend to be speaker."

There were other opportunities along the way to raise his profile. Miller's name was floated several times for Cabinet positions -- first as interior secretary under President Bill Clinton and later as labor or education secretary for Obama. He said he never took the reports seriously.

"I had the best job in the city as far as I’m concerned," Miller said. "Why would I go to a place where I’m going to end up having to make a lot of compromises I don’t have control over, when I can stay and address the same issues without having that burden?"

It was through the congressional committees that Miller was most influential. As a member of what’s now called the House Education and the Workforce Committee, he championed greater educational access for children with disabilities. He authored legislation that expanded the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, worked to increase aid to victims of domestic abuse and pushed for federal grants for parents who adopted foster children. He became chairman of what’s now the House Natural Resources Committee in 1991 and tackled issues such as offshore drilling, mining and grazing policy, federal water laws, and other environmental issues critical to the West.

When George W. Bush became president, Miller had a powerful perch. Bush wanted to champion an education overhaul, which would go through the Education Committee on which Miller was the ranking member. The two convened in Austin, Texas, not long after the 2000 election and formed an easygoing friendship, with Bush referring to Miller as “Jorge Grande,” or “Big George,” according to Sandy Kress, then a senior education adviser to Bush.

"I think he really liked Miller just personally," Kress said. "I think part of it was that [Miller] was genuine. He was there to get something done. ... He had no other agenda."

During debates over No Child Left Behind, Miller often used humor to ease tensions. One night, a committee markup had turned contentious over a thorny amendment. Charlie Barone, Miller's top education staffer at the time, said the members disbanded to their offices until Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), then chairman of the Education Committee, called and said he wanted to speak with Miller.

"George came down, and we're all saying, ‘You can't agree, you can't move on this thing!’" Barone recalled. "And George just says, 'Relax!' And he just broke into an imitation of Curly from the Three Stooges, shuffled back three steps, and went into the meeting."

Barone stood by Miller’s side on May 23, 2001, as No Child Left Behind passed the House by a vote of 384-45.

"He was a little choked up. He'd been pushing this stuff when it looked like a long shot," Barone said. "When the votes came in, he reached his arm around me and gave me a big bear hug."

Twelve years later, that night seems like an overly sentimental memory of a Washington that once worked. Critics on the left have since pilloried No Child Left Behind for its use of student test scores to punish underperforming schools, while opponents on the right have denounced it as government overreach.

Congress is poised to rewrite the law in the coming months, with Republicans looking to dramatically reduce federal accountability for local schools. Miller won't be there to move the talk in his ideological direction.

"My getting back in doesn’t solve the problem," he said.

Rep. George Miller and other members of Congress look on as President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002. Miller was one of the bill's co-authors. (Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP)

By the time that No Child Left Behind passed, such bipartisan victories were increasingly rare. After the 1994 Republican revolution, when the GOP retook the House, Miller spent more and more time in potentially gavel-busting moments.

"Before, when you passed legislation, you took the minority into consideration," Miller said. "[House Speaker Newt] Gingrich turned that into: You're trading with the enemy, you're not loyal to the party, and you're not loyal to the ideology."

A spokesperson for Gingrich did not return a request for comment.

Things have only worsened in recent years, Miller said, pointing to Republican opposition to Obama. "I think there's no question that they are dedicated to his failure, which I've never witnessed in my public life," Miller said. "I wasn't a great fan of George W. Bush's policies, obviously, but we worked together on education."

Miller's own power began to wane as well in recent years. Though the Watergate wave that swept him and others into office had undercut the chairmen’s power, for a long time House committees still did the real work of legislating. Miller excelled in hashing out issues with fellow lawmakers, advancing his causes conversation by conversation. But slowly those conversations mattered less, as Gingrich and then Pelosi consolidated power in the hands of the speaker.

The benefits of the new system were displayed on March 23, 2010, when Miller stood with his colleagues in the Oval Office to celebrate the Affordable Care Act's passage. It was a signature moment in his career, a capstone to a promise he had made when he first ran for office 40 years ago. But the secondary message it sent about modern governance was hard to ignore. The bill had passed through many late-stage, closed-door negotiations involving just Democrats and the White House. And when Congress finally voted, just one Republican crossed the aisle to support the law.

As the president signed the bill into law, Miller said, the thought of retirement first seriously crossed his mind.

"I was at the top, and I couldn't see anything around me that was a higher pinnacle," Miller said. "And it just dawned on me. Where's up from here? This has been a hundred-year debate in the country and it's been resolved and it's what you came here to do. And I just thought, you know, 'You've had a great run. Maybe, just go home.'"

Rep. George Miller stands in his Washington office, where the photos span years of political history. The most meaningful, he said, is a drawing by a child from a broken home. (Photo courtesy of George Miller's office)

Leaving Washington, however, was not easy. Part of it was the drubbing that Democrats took in the 2010 elections. But much of it was his loyalty to the people and the office.

Miller's decision to depart was so difficult that he had trouble talking about it. Just a few months before leaving office, Miller told HuffPost that although he had informed Pelosi before announcing his retirement, the two had not truly discussed the matter since.

"I take it as a compliment," he said, struggling for words and glancing at the floor. "We've probably had it in many settings but not sitting down, because it'd be the hardest conversation for me."

Perhaps the hardest thing for Miller, however, is the concern that much of what he spent decades accomplishing is now under threat. In addition to the overhaul being sought on No Child Left Behind, the Supreme Court will soon weigh the legality of the Affordable Care Act’s federal subsidies, posing the biggest threat to Obamacare since the 2012 election.

And then there is the issue of money in politics. Miller’s career has been bookended by that debate. He first arrived in Congress on a wave of public resentment over Watergate and the demand to strengthen campaign finance laws. On his way out, he witnessed the unraveling of those very laws, which he described as the greatest risk to democracy today.

"I think that our group was for reform of the Congress, reform of the political system, to make it more responsive to the American people, and we’re not where we wanted to be when we came into office these 40 years later," said former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) who came to Congress with Miller. "But we’ve seen a lot of important accomplishments. … And some of the worst things that we feared have not happened yet -- the end of Social Security, end of Medicare, end of Medicaid."

Even as some of his signature achievements are imperiled, Miller seems somewhat philosophical. Politics is a ruthless game, he observes, and there are no guarantees that the legacy you try to craft is the one you will get.

"I was told a long time ago by my former chief of staff, John Lawrence, that in politics, nothing is permanent. There are no permanent victories and when you win something tonight, you have to defend it tomorrow morning," Miller said.

Besides, Miller argued, the country has progressed significantly since his first election. Conditions for workers have improved, the environment has been made cleaner, and educational access has expanded for the disabled and children from low-income families. The baby steps, Miller said, matter as much as the glamorous wins.

"Workers are working in a better space, getting killed less. … Am I satisfied? Not for a moment," he said. "But the fact is, yes, they're safer. Are poor children, minority children learning at a greater rate? Yes. Good enough? Not even close."

Miller hasn't fully disengaged from Washington, nor does he plan to. He has spoken to Pelosi and some other former colleagues and has participated in rallies to defend the health care law. He sold Animal House but visited the old stomping grounds during a trip to Washington in late January. As he walked back to his hotel, Schumer jumped out of a car, joked about living alone and roped Miller into a dinner.

The idea, at some point, is to figure out the next job after 40 years of doing this one. But he’s in no rush. Back home, he starts his mornings by taking Cooper for a run, reads the paper and helps his wife with the chores he has neglected for years. He gushes about his six grandchildren, whose pictures are plastered across the fridge. To his delight, he can wear whatever he wants.

"I hang out casually," Miller said. "I was always in fights with every speaker in the place about wearing ties on the floor. It’s not my cup of tea."

For now, he’s combing through offers that would allow him to stay engaged in issues like education and workers' rights. He hasn't retired from those fights. He has just stepped back from gavel-busting on the House floor.

"I gave all that I could give," Miller said. "Did I make the world a perfect place? Nah. Am I still as fired up as those speeches from 1978? You betcha."

Sam Stein contributed reporting.

Enjoy reading this article? Read more selections from the best of HuffPost in Huffington Magazine.

George Miller
Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS