Memorial Service Honors Sen. Howard Metzenbaum ’41
By James J. Brudney
Newton D. Baker-Baker & Hostetler Chair in Law
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Back in 1994, a Republican senator had this to say about his Democratic colleague, Howard Metzenbaum: “When you look around Washington, D.C., you see a lot of ‘paper tigers’ -- big bundles of noisy press releases and not a lot of intellectual muscle power to back them up. Make no mistake: when it comes to being a tiger, Howard Metzenbaum is the real McCoy.”
On July 15, a crowd of hundreds gathered in the Russell Senate Office Building to pay tribute to Metzenbaum, who died in March. A graduate of The Ohio State University (bachelor’s degree in 1939, law degree in 1941), Metzenbaum represented Ohio in the Senate for 19 years, retiring in 1994. More than a dozen speakers at the event recalled how Metzenbaum fought hard and successfully to pass laws that benefited ordinary Americans, and how tenacious he was in opposing measures he believed would favor powerful special interests at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. In an era when Congress is too often perceived as venal and dysfunctional, Metzenbaum’s legacy is both impressive and instructive.
Sen. Tom Harkin, one of Metzenbaum’s strongest allies, emphasized that Metzenbaum “didn’t come here to be Mr. Popularity, he came here to get things done -- for children, consumers, workers, minorities, the downtrodden.” Sen. Orrin Hatch, one of Metzenbaum’s staunchest opponents, sounded a similar theme: “He believed you are elected to make tough votes, not avoid decisions. He could get me madder than almost anyone else in my life, but he was one of the senators I most respected in my career here.” Remarks from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and long-time colleagues Frank Lautenberg and Edward Kennedy (who sent a letter from his own sick bed) echoed the praise for Metzenbaum’s individuality, his willingness to speak his mind and then act on it in an effort to give voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. Sen. Barbara Boxer spoke of Metzenbaum’s importance to her as a mentor, as someone “who knew who he was and would do anything, anything, to fight for the little guy.”
Former Sen. John Glenn remarked that his relationship with Metzenbaum had been strained at the start (they ran against each other in two hotly contested Senate primaries in 1970 and 1974) but then improved dramatically in the 1980s. He recalled with obvious fondness “how a small town Presbyterian boy from New Concord and a Jewish big city kid from Cleveland became friends.” Glenn added that he considered himself “lucky to have served with Metzenbaum and really lucky to have run against him only twice.”
At the beginning of his tenure, Metzenbaum learned how to take advantage of the Senate’s intricate and arcane parliamentary techniques. His first staff director, Barry Direnfeld, explained how the freshman senator in 1977 took on a plan to deregulate the price of natural gas, a plan supported by the leadership of both parties. Metzenbaum did so because Ohio was one of the nation’s largest consumers of natural gas, and he had made energy prices and energy companies’ profits one of his major campaign issues.
Senate filibusters had traditionally been used to block civil rights legislation. There had never been a “pro-consumer” filibuster. As Direnfeld described it, “every night at the end of a full day in the Senate, Howard dug into the Senate rules and its precedents like a trial lawyer preparing his case. Retired parliamentarians were consulted as he personally mastered the rules.” Metzenbaum exploited a loophole in those rules by introducing more than 500 amendments just before the Senate shut off floor debate on the president’s energy bill. Each of the amendments could thus be called up for a vote, and after seven days in which the Senate had run through only about 200 of the amendments (including one 37-hour session), there was a heavy-handed effort by the leadership to break the filibuster, followed by a negotiated compromise.
Metzenbaum built his reputation in the early 1980s as a tireless opponent of “Christmas tree bills” ornamented with special favors for corporations or states that would have cost millions of taxpayer dollars. He did this by maintaining a constant vigil on the Senate floor -- in person or through his senior staff -- to assure that no special interest “ringers” were cleared for approval. A Washington Post editorial column from December 1982, headed simply “Thank God for Metzenbaum!” estimated that he had saved taxpayers more than $25 billion over a two-year period by placing holds on special interest bills in the closing weeks of Senate sessions. And former Senate majority leader Howard Baker opined at the time that “the Senate needs someone like Howard Metzenbaum -- but only one.”
But as various speakers also observed at the memorial service, the public perception of Metzenbaum as tenacious, demanding, inflexible, and blunt did not do justice to his more complex persona. Sen. Harkin pointed to one prevalent misperception: “lots of people said Howard was cold and calculating; he was not -- he was warm and calculating.” His love of interacting with children -- his own, his staff’s, the children of absolute strangers --- was legendary. Direnfeld observed how his staff would be frustrated when the senator’s appearance for floor votes and campaign stops was often delayed or disrupted because of his inability to pass by children without engaging them in conversation. On the other hand, Direnfeld continued, staff understood they would be guaranteed face time with the senator if they brought their children to work, where the kids would receive a treat from the lollipop tree in the senator’s personal office.
Joel Johnson, Metzenbaum’s last staff director, referred to the senator as “always more complicated than his headlines. He was a Don Quixote and a dealmaker, a purist and a poker player.” During his three full terms in the Senate, Metzenbaum proved to be a consummate dealmaker, instrumental in the passage of numerous federal laws.
A partial list of Metzenbaum’s legislative successes includes a 1980 law requiring rigorous testing of the safety of baby formula; a 1985 law allowing public sector employees to negotiate compensatory time off in lieu of mandatory paid overtime; a 1986 law that ended mandatory age-70 retirement for tens of millions of workers; a 1988 law requiring businesses to give workers and local communities 60 days advance notice before a plant closing or mass layoff; a 1990 law requiring food manufacturers to include uniform health and nutrition information on all product labels; and the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which established a mandatory waiting period for handgun purchases.
Sarah Brady, whose husband Jim Brady was shot during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, championed the handgun waiting period bill during the period of more than a decade that it took to become a law. Brady also spoke at the service, saying she had “learned more from Howard Metzenbaum (during their legislative struggle) than I learned in all my years in education. Not just about politics but about life.”
The Senate and the country sorely miss his contributions.
Moritz Professor James Brudney was hired by Metzenbaum in 1985 as minority counsel to the Senate Labor Subcommittee. Brudney was named chief counsel and staff director of the subcommittee in 1987 and served there until 1992.