New Haven Register - Coming Home: Chris Dodd Looks Back On 30 Years in the U.S. Senate
This past spring, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., visited a soldier at Walter Reed Hospital who had been injured in Afghanistan.
When he turned to the young man's mother, who was sitting next to him, to ask how she was holding up, she said: "I'm doing fine. I was able to take family medical leave to be with my son while he recuperated."
Addressing U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. on the Senate floor last week, as Dodd prepares to leave after a 30-year career, Reed said the woman probably didn't even know who Dodd, the author of the landmark 1993 leave bill, was.
"But she, along with 50 million other Americans are by the hospital bed of a wounded son or a sick child or an ailing parent and that to me is the greatest tribute to what you have done," said an emotional Reed of the labor bill that allows workers to take up to 12 weeks off to care for family members, without fear of losing their jobs.
The number of beneficiaries of the act has actually now reached 100 million people, according to Senate staffers.
Reed's remarks were among a litany of week long tributes to Dodd, 66, who held hearings and left advice for his colleagues on the banking and foreign relations committees, as well as delivered a valedictory message that reminded them that their role was to be statesmen and to find common ground to move the country forward.
The senator, in an interview in his Washington office, said the leave act, which took seven years to pass, as well as other signature pieces of law he advanced, particularly those affecting children, and most recently the financial reform and health care bills, are the product of relationships and shoe leather.
"When I did family medical leave I went door to door. I brought charts and graphs and I went from senator to senator today it's no different," Dodd said.
GETTING IT DONE
While the Senate has been described as the place where bills go to die, Dodd has bottomless faith in the institution.
"I still believe the place works, but you have to work at it. It doesn't work automatically and what makes it work is the labor intense development of relationships with your colleagues that's the formula. It's not complicated," Dodd said.
His close friend and former chief of staff, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, said changing family dynamics, from single parent households to two working parents, weren't on anyone's radar screen in terms of policies when Dodd first advanced the discussion more than 20 years ago.
"There weren't any guideposts about working families," DeLauro said. "This is about being visionary and touching real lives."
Dodd is one of the original founders of the Children Caucus and authored or co-sponsored such bills as the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Ryan White CARE Act for HIV/AIDS patients, the Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Adoption and Family Services Act, the Safe Schools Act, while also working on the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides medical care for millions of low-income youngsters.
The Democratic liberal stalwart was able to leave his mark early on in foreign affairs as well.
In 1981, 10 months after being elected, he defeated the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-S.C., in a Republican controlled Senate on aid to El Salvador, a huge issue at the time as a civil war there, as well as in Nicaragua, were fueled with American assistance. Two years later, he gave his party's response to President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union by advocating for economic, rather than military aid for those countries.
DeLauro said she sat in the Senate gallery as Dodd defended an amendment that would require El Salvador to certify human rights protections before getting any more aid, an effort he won. "No one is more responsible for ending the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador than Chris Dodd," DeLauro said at a recent tribute to the senator.
Dodd's interest in Latin American started with his Peace Corp stint in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1968 and last week, as he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the final time, he told his colleagues that the militarization of the U.S. response to the challenges in Mexico "is a huge mistake," that tackling the root problems of poverty was a better focus.
BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE
The common denominator when people reflect on Dodd is his sense of humor, his ability to put everyone at ease and to bring them together and his sense of humor. He has friends on both sides of the aisle, chief among them, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn, the junior senator from the state, said Dodd would kid him, that Lieberman had really been raised a Baptist and that he only converted to Orthodox Judaism when he realized all the commitments he would have as a senator on Friday and Saturday.
Lieberman said when Dodd accompanied him, arm and arm at his first Senate session, as is traditional, he remarked, "You know Joe, there are people who are worried that you may be the only one I walk down an aisle with."
Dodd spent most of his career in Washington as an eligible bachelor before marrying Jackie Clegg Dodd in 1999. He became a father for the first time in 2001 with the birth of his daughter, Grace. Her sister, Christina, was born in 2005.
DeLauro, who can be a flamboyant dresser, recalls the time Dodd brought her to meet former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas.
"I'd like to introduce to you my chief of staff, who thinks she works in the Vatican. She looks like a Swiss guard," DeLauro remembers Dodd remarking on her maroon and green stripped pants suit, which she held up for the crowd at a party last week for the senator. "It still fits," DeLauro said.
The congresswoman said he was the kind of a boss who didn't take himself too seriously. He was also someone who wanted straight talk from his staff. "I never had to pull my punches. That's a liberating thing," DeLauro said.
The main visitor's office for Dodd in the Senate's Russell building, whose walls are covered with cartoons by Johnny Anderson of his early Senate years, as well as those of his father, Connecticut U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, was decorated for the holidays last week and the buzz of staff and guests continued as it always has.
There was little sign that a move was imminent from the eight-office suite he has by virtue of his committee status and seniority. The senator has to be out by Dec. 17 as others move up in rank, although he will still have an office in the Senate building until Jan. 2.
When he announced on Jan. 6 that he would not seek re-election, Dodd said "I promised that I intended to fulfil my contract, that I wasn't going to disappear" and the year has been a full one with health care and financial reform.
In 2009, Dodd's standing in the polls had dropped substantially over an investigation into mortgages he received from Countrywide Financial. Ultimately, he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Senate Ethics Committee, but the damage had been done.
He has said that the financial reforms in particular would not likely have passed if he was also running for re-election.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who commented after Dodd's valedictory speech on the crucial role the senator had played this year, said: "Very few people have had the opportunities and the challenges in a single Congress that Chris Dodd did."
While health care reforms proved to be the most controversial, others were disappointed that the curbs on Wall Street don't do far enough. Dodd however, was pleased with the outcome.
"My job wasn't to solve yesterday's problem. It was to minimize the next crisis from metastasizing into what this one was. I wasn't out to penalize anybody. I know people wanted me to It was looking forward and saying, when the next crisis comes, financially, as it certainly will, are we better prepared than we have been to respond to it?" said the senator.
Viewed in that light he said "it does exactly that," with its oversight committee, its consumer protection component, and provisions to end "too big to fail," although others disagree. Dodd said for those banks that do grow, there are tougher rules to balance risk-taking.
"These are all new ideas and they are going to last a long time and the idea that you are going to repeal all of this is baloney. That's just as true for health care," Dodd said of the far more contentious health reform bill, whose major features don't roll out until 2014.
The senator, who was part of the dozen leaders who sat in the room in September 2008, and listened to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke tell them they had to act within days or the financial system in the U.S. and a good part of the world "would melt down," feels vindicated that the unpopular $700 billion TARP bank bailout was a success.
Latest figures show that all but $25 billion of it has been paid back by banks and financial institutions to the government.
In his three-decade tenure in the Senate, Dodd said it was one of his proudest moments when 75 senators voted for TARP, despite what was sure to be negative fallout. "I believe that history will record without any equivocation, that it was essential that we did what we did. It worked to stabilize," he said.
Yale School of Management professor, Andrew Metric, who worked for the Obama administration on financial reforms, said the bill that Dodd ultimately helped get through was better than the one they had a year before when the Democrats still had a 60-vote majority.
He said the country now has the tools that offer something in between bailout and bankruptcy. Immediately breaking up big financial institutions without any evidence of the outcome would have been "very radical and irresponsible."
Dodd thinks he could have won, if he sought re-election this year, but the issue was did he want to do this for another six years.
"I think you owe it to your constituency, you owe it to this institution that if you really don't have the energy or the passion to spend those 10 or 12 hours, then you shouldn't," Dodd said.
Right now, he is spending three or four nights a week with 60 9 year olds in tutus, as his daughter Grace performs "The Nutcracker" with the Washington Ballet and he will appear himself in the party scene on Christmas Eve as a fundraiser for the dance company.
"I'm having a great time," he said, and in no rush to decide his next career move.