By the late 1980s, money had helped install Waxman, Berman, and their allies as power brokers in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington. Loyalty was prized above all else in their shadow party. “There was all this nonsense about political machines,” Berman says today. Adds Waxman: “It was a political alliance of like-minded people. Machines usually mean corruption or patronage. We didn’t have either.”
What made their partnership unique is that they straddled the politics/policy line so successfully for so long. Even as a junior House member, Berman played a part in the 1986 immigration overhaul, and he methodically climbed the ladder of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he would eventually chair. Waxman, while busy recruiting “like-minded” allies for obscure state legislative seats, wielded his subcommittee gavel for 15 years. He was versed in legislative arcana and reveled in all-night deal-making sessions. After a 1990 negotiation over a landmark air-pollution law broke through a logjam at dawn, Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming declared, “It was rich, profane, embittered. I learned that Henry Waxman is tougher than a boiled owl.”
Short, bald, and with a close-cropped mustache, Waxman is a bullet of a man and an acknowledged virtuoso at the inside game. (He even wrote a book about it, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works, in 2009.) His 1979 committee coup was only his first. In 2008, he squeezed past Rep. John Dingell, who had served since 1955, to take the gavel of the full Energy and Commerce panel when Democrats gained control of the House. Berman, balding but still with more than a few wisps of curly gray hair, has been one of Congress’s leading voices on international matters, teaming with Democrats and Republicans alike. Notably, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham both endorsed Berman in his losing 2012 reelection bid (albeit, against a fellow Democrat).
Even as Waxman and Berman hit their stride in the halls of Congress, however, California’s fast-shifting demographics —namely, the exploding Latino population—caught up with them back home. The political operation stopped recruiting as many candidates and winning as many campaigns. Waxman and Berman said they were focused on crafting accomplishments in Congress. Garry South, a sometime rival Democratic strategist from California, was less charitable. “You can’t have a political machine in California when it consists of mostly middle-aged white guys, most of whom are Jewish,” he said.
After the 2000 census, Michael Berman was enlisted, once again, to slice and dice California’s congressional districts on behalf of Democrats. Most of the state’s Democratic House delegation paid him $20,000 apiece to protect their seats—and their jobs. “If my colleagues are smart, they’ll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez told The Orange County Register in 2001. “Those who have refused to pay? God help them.”
Michael Berman devised a bipartisan gerrymander that protected incumbents in both parties. It was wildly successful. In the next decade, out of more than 250 congressional contests in the state, only a single seat switched party hands. Perhaps more important for the Bermans, the map staved off the Latino surge from swallowing Howard’s San Fernando Valley district. “It’s just assumed that was the first seat he drew,” says Gray Davis, who as governor signed the law.
But the 2000 gerrymander engendered much ill will. For starters, all the Latinos who were expected to populate Berman’s district were initially stuffed into the neighboring district of Rep. Brad Sherman, who was none too pleased. Neither was the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which sued. And, as the years passed and no seats changed hands, the public outcry over the backroom deal to protect incumbents grew. In 2008, voters stripped the Legislature of the power to draw maps and gave it to an independent commission. The days of Michael Berman carving up the state were over.
That new commission lumped Sherman and Berman into the same district in 2012. The clash was bitter. They disagreed little on policy (“Two Jews, One District” was the tag-line on a blog devoted to the race in the local Jewish Journal), but the attacks were fierce. The two nearly came to blows during a debate, until a police officer intervened. The contest was one of the nation’s costliest and, in the end, it was a blowout. Sherman, the backbencher, trounced Berman, the congressional heavyweight, 60 percent to 40 percent.
South said that Berman ultimately succumbed to that classic Washington syndrome: He lost touch back home as his profile swelled in D.C. and abroad. “It is very, very easy for a member of Congress to think you’re hot shit in Washington because your chairman of some committee,” he said. “It’s ‘Chairman This’ and ‘Chairman That.’ You think that’s filtered back to your district. Guess what: It’s not.”
Or, as one elected Democrat in Los Angeles put it, “Howard was busy trying to make peace in Israel, and Brad was attending Ari’s bar mitzvah in Encino.”
Shortly after the November elections, House Democrats gathered deep in the bowels of the Capitol as Pelosi announced she would stay on as minority leader. Reporters jostled in the hallway, hoping for insights and sound bites. Waxman and Berman emerged in quick succession. Waxman was mobbed by reporters wielding microphones and tape recorders: What did he think? What was the mood like? What exactly did she say?
As he regaled the reporters, Berman slipped past, almost unnoticed.
It’s not clear what Berman will do next. He is still weighing his options, which he hinted include taking a post in the Obama administration. “I’ll just say that if you’ve been in elected office for 40 years, unless you’re doing something that’s sort of illegal, you’re not considering yourself a wealthy individual,”he said. The private sector, in other words, is an option. (Berman had a net worth of between $1.14 million and $1.22 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, ranking 174th in the House; Waxman ranked 177th.)
Berman and Waxman teamed up for one last postelection battle: denying Sherman’s bid for the senior spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee that Berman vacated. “I don’t think he has anywhere near the stature,” Waxman sneered. Sherman had to withdraw.
Both are still adjusting to the idea of life without the other. Berman insisted it’s not the end of the Waxman-Berman era. “I think it’s the end of my era,” he said. Waxman, after all, remains the ranking Democrat at Energy and Commerce.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect year for when Rep. Henry Waxman became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. It was 2008, not 2006.
This article appears in the Jan. 26, 2013, edition of National Journal as Machine Men.