The phrase “Waxman-Berman machine” first appeared in The Washington Post almost four years before Howard Berman was even sworn into Congress. The year was 1979, and the occasion was when Rep. Henry Waxman, then a relatively junior Democrat from California, pulled off an upset win for the chairmanship of the Health Subcommittee of the powerful House Energy and Commerce panel.
Waxman did it, in part, by tapping the network of wealthy Los Angeles donors whom he and Berman, then a state Assembly member, had cultivated to cut $40,000 worth of checks to his congressional colleagues, including eight on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Sure enough, the recipients of his largesse helped Waxman leapfrog a more veteran lawmaker to secure the gavel.
“Some people were shocked that I would try to help Democrats on my committee,” Waxman recalled in a recent interview. “It was one of the first examples of a leadership PAC, of a member helping other members. Now, almost everybody does it.”
The coup was just one of the many exploits that Waxman and Berman pulled off over the years, forever linking the names of the two liberal Jewish Democrats from the west side of Los Angeles. From the late 1970s until the early 1990s, they operated the most potent political machine in California. A Waxman-Berman blessing could make a political career. The two dished out campaign cash, forged alliances, drew districts for friends (and themselves), and developed microtargeting techniques before a word for it even existed. “When I was a kid, I remember reading and hearing about the Waxman-Berman machine and what a powerhouse they were in Democratic politics,” says recently retired GOP Rep. David Dreier, who had represented Southern California for 30 years in the House.
The Waxman-Berman political machinery rusted and fell into disrepair by the early 1990s, but the pair have remained a force in the biggest congressional policy battles, both foreign (led by Berman) and domestic (led by Waxman) for three decades. Berman has been influential in reshaping immigration and intellectual-property laws; fighting apartheid; pushing for stiff sanctions on Iran; advocating unflinching support for Israel; and, most controversially, contributing a leading Democratic voice in support of the second Iraq war. Waxman, meanwhile, was a driving force behind expanding Medicaid for poor children; strengthening the Clean Air Act; taking on big-tobacco interests; investigating President George W. Bush from his perch atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; and, most recently, shepherding Obama’s health care law through the House. The two worked in different fields and on different committees, but almost invariably they stuck together in the belief that two votes were better than one.
That era ended on Jan. 3. For the first time since Ronald Reagan was California governor and The Brady Bunch was churning out new episodes, Waxman and Berman don’t both hold elective office. Although Waxman survived his closest contest in decades, voters unceremoniously dumped Berman for fellow Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., after the two members were drawn into the same district. For foes, it was a dose of delicious irony: Berman, a politician whose career was abetted by political mapmaking, was ultimately undone by the same arcane process.
“I hate to see Howard Berman go,” Waxman said. “It’s a real loss for the Congress and the country.”
BAD TO THE BONE
Berman, now 71, and Waxman, 73, met as college students at the University of California (Los Angeles) more than 50 years ago. They were fast friends and partners as leaders of the college’s Young Democrats. When Waxman made a 1968 bid to unseat an incumbent for state Assembly, he hired Howard’s brother, Michael, as his campaign manager. Together, they scored a stunning upset over a 25-year veteran lawmaker.
Once elected, Waxman turned his attention to bringing Howard Berman to the Statehouse along with him. Waxman landed as chairman of the committee charged with redrawing the state’s political maps after the 1970 census, and Michael Berman joined the panel’s staff.
“I did everything I could to get him elected. We drew a district for him” in 1972, Waxman said. Although Gov. Reagan vetoed Waxman’s map, it gave the duo their first taste of the power of reapportionment. Michael, meanwhile, honed his skills as a political cartographer. It was a task he would take to, playing a part in drawing (and, critics said, manipulating) California’s political boundaries over the next three decades.
“I think the word ‘gerrymandering’ has been around a long time. We didn’t invent that,” Howard Berman said. He paused. “Not that anything we did was gerrymandering.”
His hopes for a tailored district nixed, Berman ran for the Assembly in 1972 anyway, unseating a longtime Republican member with the help of Waxman, who then moved on to Congress in 1975. On opposite coasts, they expanded their network of alliances, particularly in the Jewish community, electing friends and divvying up campaign money. By decade’s end, Waxman had risen to the Health Subcommittee chairmanship in D.C. and Berman was a legislative leader in Sacramento, spearheading the historic fight for farmworkers’ rights in California.
This article appears in the January 26, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Machine Men.