Rep. George Miller says he is just ‘Hamburger Helper’

It is sport on Capitol Hill to speculate as to whether Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fellow California Democrat, longtime friend, political enforcer and ideological soul mate, is the true power in the House.

“I’m just Hamburger Helper,” Miller said last week in an interview, dismissing such talk. “If I can help her to accomplish more things in a day, I’m happy, I’m done.”

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Miller is 62 years old and one of three Watergate Babies, from the class of 1974, still serving in the House. He and Pelosi have known one another for more than 30 years. Miller’s mentor was former Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), whose seat Pelosi now holds. They have similar backgrounds: Pelosi’s father was mayor of Baltimore; Miller’s was a powerful state senator.

“George Miller brings to the Congress enormous intellect, commitment and compassion,” Pelosi said. “He is a stalwart champion for the environment, for the working men and women of our country, and for our children.”

Both are considered brilliant political tacticians.

“George Miller is operational and so is she,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a longtime friend of the two lawmakers, said. “There are few who are masters of the House. He’s one of them and so is she. That makes for an extraordinary relationship.”

“How often do they speak?” a former lawmaker and friend of the pair asked jokingly. “How many hours are there in a day?”

During President Bush’s most recent State of the Union address, Pelosi chose Miller and three other members to remain in their offices, with guards posted at their doors, in the event of an attack on the government. Miller occasionally flies home with Pelosi on the weekends, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

When Pelosi forcefully backed Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) for majority leader, Miller spent that damp and chilly Sunday after the Nov. 6 election drumming up support for Murtha from the new Democratic lawmakers at the Capitol Hilton Hotel on New Jersey Avenue.

Throwing her organizational support to Murtha proved to be a gross miscalculation; now-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) trounced Murtha. Ever the pragmatist, Miller congratulated Hoyer in front of the entire caucus and suggested meeting later to discuss the future and how they would operate in the majority. A cordial and productive meeting eventually took place, Democratic leadership aides said.

That has not stopped political observers from searching to find strains in the relationship between Pelosi and Hoyer. Republicans thought they saw a hint of discord between Hoyer and Miller, who is perceived as a surrogate for Pelosi, when the electronic scoreboard, which displays how lawmakers vote, malfunctioned during a vote on the House floor that took place in August.

Aides saw Hoyer and Miller talking under their breath; Miller said they were talking out of the side of their mouths so as not to convey their own panic amid pandemonium on the House floor. Hoyer gave Miller a forearm flick to the gut, which the former is known to do with a sense of camaraderie.

Miller’s self-deprecating “Hamburger Helper” comment may have been flippant, but he’s aware that some say he’s the man behind the powerful woman.

“It shows an incredible lack of understanding of who the Speaker is and her incredible talents,” Miller said. “Those conclusions show a certain naïveté about politics in general.”

Downplaying his influence might seem self-serving, but as Miller told The Washington Post in 1991, he legislates like he plays basketball.

“I try to make the game move along. I pass the ball … I shoot like a third-grader. I try to include people in legislation. I try to give other people credit. My game is much more inclusive,” he said.

Since becoming Speaker, Pelosi’s Cabinet of top advisers has expanded beyond Reps. Miller, Eshoo, Murtha, Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and David Obey (D-Wis.), in part because of her need to focus on a wide range of issues. She frequently consults with Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Financial Services panel Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on military readiness and banking issues, respectively. Rep. John Tierney’s (D-Mass.) voice is heard more frequently, a Democratic leadership aide said.

Miller’s power, earned over his 33 years in Congress, cannot be overstated. As chairman of both the House Education and Labor Committee and Democratic Policy Committee, he is the only Democrat who wears dual hats as a chairman and a member of leadership.

Miller is thought of highly by organized labor, having fought numerous battles on workers’ behalf over the last three decades.

As one of his first acts as chairman, Miller inserted the word “labor” back into the committee’s name.
Being one of Pelosi’s closest allies and personal friends only augments the perception of his power. Still, he never attempted to climb the leadership ladder.

“I’ve never had any interest in it at all, never, never, never, not since [junior high],” Miller said, explaining that his girlfriend defeated him in a race for class president. “I don’t have the temperament. I think you’d find several hundred people who would say that is the case.”

Another sign of Miller’s accrued power is that his former staffers populate top positions within the Democratic Caucus. Pelosi’s chief of staff, John Lawrence, worked for Miller for 30 years. Amy Rosenbaum, Pelosi’s policy director, also worked for Miller.

Staffers on the House Natural Resources Committee, which Miller chaired briefly in the early 1990s, worked for the congressman as well. The chief of staff on the House Administration Committee, Liz Birnbaum, worked for him, too, as did Dan Beard, the chief administrative officer of the House.

Miller does not go to any lengths to conceal just how connected his office is to Pelosi’s. Last week, he huddled with her senior advisers in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor during a mid-morning vote to discuss committee business. The meeting ended, Miller stood, still chatting with one of the aides, and a crowd of reporters stepped aside to clear a path as Miller ambled onto the House floor.

Similarly, Miller’s path in politics has been relatively free of obstacles. He suffered only one defeat at the ballot box — in 1969, when he attempted to succeed his father, who died of a heart attack at age 54, in the state Senate. Five years later, having graduated from law school and worked as a state Senate aide, the young Miller won his congressional seat.
Visitors can see how far Miller has traveled in politics by looking at the posters and photographs in his office. In one photo, Miller resembles Gabe Kaplan playing schoolteacher Gabe Kotter in the television program “Welcome Back, Kotter.” President Jimmy Carter is giving him the oath of office for his second term. His once-black curly hair and mustache have turned white.

Miller has outsmarted and out-hustled his political opponents. His allies and adversaries concur that the man can stick with an issue for years. Such determination has propelled him to the top of the political food chain. While skeptics and opponents might doubt or fear his unabashed liberalism, Miller is a pragmatist.

“When George puts his mind to getting something done, he can get it done,” President Bush said last week as he signed into law Miller’s legislation increasing college aid. The White House had previously vowed to veto the measure.
Pelosi has relied on Miller to shepherd the most important Democratic initiatives through the House, and Miller has delivered with bipartisan majorities. He pushed through two of the Democrats’ biggest accomplishments so far: raising the minimum wage and passing the student loan bill.

As chairman of the Resources panel in the early 1990s, Miller won huge battles for environmentalists. He passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992, the largest water project in the country, consisting of 20 dams and 500 miles of canals, according to a 1997 Congressional Budget Office report.

“The reforms … have been both hailed as path-breaking and subject to harsh criticism,” CBO stated.

He is, not surprisingly, using the panel to help freshman Democrats. When staffers on the panel found an additional $900 million in savings while the committee reviewed legislation increasing student aid, Miller, as chairman, let the freshmen carry the amendment, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) said.

He also is rewriting the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill, which he and Bush worked on in 2001. Although Bush nicknamed him “Big George,” Miller said he never knew Bush that well.

Miller has forged a solid working relationship with the ranking member on Education and Labor, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). The two met last Thursday to discuss NCLB, but McKeon said they remain far apart on some issues, though he added that their differences were not personal and that Miller has run the committee in a fair and evenhanded manner.

Miller posted a draft bill on the committee’s website and was criticized from the left and the right. For now, it appears he has assuaged liberal pressure groups. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), the subcommittee chairman for higher education, said the bill would be marked up in October.

“Bottom line is that George always had great ideas on how to move legislation,” former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), now a lobbyist with Cassidy & Associates and one of his former roommates, said. “He is always willing to make a compromise [even though] he has an image as a hard-line lefty.”

Miller is so busy that it seems as if he is always either working or flying to and from California. In the free time he does have, he relaxes with his wife and five grandchildren. In August, he hiked Yosemite National Park. He is a voracious reader, always on the lookout for ideas to work into legislation.

Miller and his wife, Cynthia, frequently travel with the Aspen Institute to far-flung locales to learn about issues related to political Islam, Russia, China and Latin America.

In addition to being chairman, Miller also has been a landlord to a rotating cast of Democratic lawmakers. The current roster includes Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.). The foursome live in a Capitol Hill row house, valued at more than $500,000 on Miller’s financial disclosure form. Whatever he charges in rent — and Delahunt indicated it’s not that much — it generates between $15,001 and $50,000 in rent each year.

Russo, the original roommate, said in those early days they would discuss legislation, policy and politics. Russo encouraged Miller to invite Schumer and Durbin into the fold.

“We were all there together, discussed a lot of different things. Tactically, we fed off of each other,” Russo said, adding that Schumer would bring politics into the discussions.

Now it seems they talk about less esoteric topics.

“It’s the mundane stuff,” Delahunt said. “‘Please pick up the garbage. Do the dishes. Make my bed.’ ”

There is one area of politics he avoids discussing: who will be the Oval Office’s next tenant. Miller readily admits his punditry on presidential politics is amiss. He endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in 2000 and, in 1992, “[Bill] Clinton was something like my fifth choice,” he joked. “So no, I’m not getting into that.”

Miller might pick the wrong horses in presidential politics, but in the House his judgment is much more astute. Burton, a legislative giant in his day, guided Miller as a young lawmaker. Pelosi, who holds the seat held by Burton and, later, his wife Sala, appreciates Miller’s advice to help guide an unwieldy Democratic Caucus.

Even though Miller was a senior lawmaker when Pelosi arrived in the House in 1987, it is clear Miller admires her and considers her a more complete political animal.

“I always think of her … like … Magic Johnson coming down the court. You [think you] know exactly who he’s going to pass the ball to, except he doesn’t pass it to that person,” Miller said recently. “He flips it behind him and that person takes it and dunks it. She brings that kind of vision to politics.”