Waxman: Eliot Ness, Mother Teresa, and Green Giant Rolled Into One

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WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 24: Sir Elton John (L) and U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) attend the Syringe Access Fund Reception at Open Society Foundations on July 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Elton John AIDS Foundation)
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Jan. 30, 2014, 1:33 p.m.

He may be most re­membered for grilling the well-to-do — from to­bacco ex­ec­ut­ives to base­ball great Ro­ger Clem­ens — but after four dec­ades in Con­gress, Rep. Henry Wax­man’s leg­acy will be best defined by his sup­port for the dis­ad­vant­aged and his pas­sion for the plan­et.

Since en­ter­ing the House with the 1974 class of post-Wa­ter­gate re­formers, the Hol­ly­wood Demo­crat has played lead­ing roles in fund­ing AIDS re­search, provid­ing chil­dren’s health in­sur­ance, ex­pand­ing Medi­care, and over­haul­ing the health care sys­tem.

On the en­vir­on­ment­al front, Wax­man was a driv­ing force be­hind a stronger Clean Air Act, pro­tec­tion of en­dangered spe­cies, safer drink­ing wa­ter, the re­mov­al of lead from paint and gas­ol­ine, and a slowly emer­ging U.S. ef­fort to mit­ig­ate cli­mate change.

For all of that, Wax­man — a short, stocky, bald, and mus­ta­chioed man who turns 75 in Septem­ber — has been labeled “The Demo­crats’ Eli­ot Ness” (Dav­id Corn, The Na­tion, 2005); “The Scar­i­est Guy in Wash­ing­ton” (Kar­en Tu­multy, Time, 2006); and most fam­ously, “sonuv­abitch” (by his Cali­for­nia col­league, Rep. George Miller, in Na­tion­al Journ­al in 1989).

“When I first came on the Budget Com­mit­tee, I thought Henry’s first name was sonuv­abitch,” Miller told NJ for a fea­ture on Wax­man 25 years ago. “Every­body who had to deal with it kept say­ing, ‘Do you know what that sonuv­abitch Wax­man wants now?’ “

A des­cend­ant of Rus­si­an im­mig­rants, grow­ing up over his Jew­ish fam­ily’s store in the Watts sec­tion of Los Angeles clearly in­stilled lib­er­al val­ues in Wax­man and turned him in­to a very savvy politi­cian. Dur­ing law school at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Los Angeles), Wax­man be­came close friends with Howard Ber­man, and the two or­gan­ized a group of young Demo­crats that put both of them on a path to Con­gress.

After six years in the Cali­for­nia As­sembly, Wax­man won the seat of a re­tir­ing con­gress­man in a dis­trict cov­er­ing West Los Angeles and that later in­cluded West Hol­ly­wood, Santa Mon­ica, and Beverly Hills, where he makes his home today.

In 1979, with only two terms un­der his belt, Wax­man was named chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Health and En­vir­on­ment Sub­com­mit­tee, and he quickly made clear­ing the air in smog-rid­den Los Angeles a top pri­or­ity. The ef­fort would take more than a dec­ade, as Wax­man was pit­ted against En­ergy and Com­merce Chair­man John Din­gell, who was de­term­ined to pro­tect auto­makers in his De­troit dis­trict from costly re­quire­ments to clean up tailpipe emis­sions.

Ul­ti­mately Wax­man and Din­gell worked out com­prom­ises that led to en­act­ment of Clean Air Act amend­ments in 1990 that greatly re­duced urb­an smog, acid rain, and tox­ic emis­sions from power plants and factor­ies. The battles with Din­gell also taught Wax­man some im­port­ant les­sons in le­gis­lat­ive over­sight that turned him in­to a pit bull on health and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues.

He was in­stru­ment­al in ex­pand­ing Medi­caid to cov­er all chil­dren and preg­nant wo­men liv­ing in poverty. He craf­ted the na­tion’s first pro­gram for treat­ing, pre­vent­ing, and re­search­ing AIDS. And he ex­posed the per­ils of smoking in a way that, he would later write in a book, be­came a “turn­ing point in our na­tion­al his­tory.”

At a House hear­ing in 1994, Wax­man called on sev­en top ex­ec­ut­ives of to­bacco com­pan­ies to testi­fy un­der oath wheth­er they be­lieved ci­gar­ettes were ad­dict­ive. All said no. When one of them, James John­ston of R.J. Reyn­olds, ar­gued that all products, from Coca-Cola to Twinkies, present some health risks, Wax­man re­spon­ded: “Yes, but the dif­fer­ence between ci­gar­ettes and Twinkies is death.”

When Re­pub­lic­ans took over Con­gress in 1995, Wax­man be­came rank­ing mem­ber of the House Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee and set up a team of in­vest­ig­at­ors who probed phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies, gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors in Ir­aq, mad-cow dis­ease, and drink­ing wa­ter con­tam­in­a­tion in the Dis­trict of Columbia.

The re­turn of Demo­crat­ic con­trol in 2007 gave Wax­man the gavel at the re­con­sti­t­uted Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee. One of his first hear­ings fo­cused on wheth­er the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion had in­terfered with the work of cli­mate sci­ent­ists.

Wax­man also turned the spot­light on the use of ster­oids in Ma­jor League Base­ball, which res­ul­ted in one of his most in­fam­ous hear­ings. All-Star pitch­er Ro­ger Clem­ens was called to testi­fy on wheth­er he ever used per­form­ance-en­han­cing drugs, and his vehe­ment deni­als later brought charges of per­jury, mak­ing false state­ments, and ob­struct­ing Con­gress. Clem­ens was ac­quit­ted on all counts in 2012, and Wax­man said the day after the hear­ing that he re­gret­ted hold­ing it.

“I’m sorry we had the hear­ing,” he said, adding that Clem­ens emerged from it un­ne­ces­sar­ily “sul­lied.”

Wax­man went up against Din­gell again in 2009, this time for the chair­man­ship of the En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee. It was a coup that took some vet­er­ans of Con­gress by sur­prise, but Wax­man later said his win­ning the gavel on a 137-122 vote in the Demo­crat­ic caucus was not meant as a slap at Din­gell, the longest-serving mem­ber of Con­gress in his­tory.

“It wasn’t the lack of re­spect that caused me to chal­lenge him for that po­s­i­tion as chair­man,” Wax­man told Na­tion­al Journ­al last year. In­stead, with a Demo­crat back in the White House and a chance to make real pro­gress on health and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues, Wax­man said he thought “I would do a bet­ter job. I ran on that basis, and I was able to con­vince the ma­jor­ity of the caucus.”

The res­ult was two ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive ini­ti­at­ives, one that fell flat and one that was a re­sound­ing suc­cess for Pres­id­ent Obama.

In 2009, Wax­man and then-Rep. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., pushed a cap-and-trade bill aimed at re­du­cing car­bon-di­ox­ide emis­sions through the House, only to have it die in the Sen­ate.

The fol­low­ing year, Wax­man played a key role in shep­herd­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act through a deeply di­vided Con­gress, an ac­com­plish­ment he high­lighted in his an­nounce­ment Thursday that he will not seek a 21st term in the House this fall.

“Ex­pand­ing health cov­er­age to those in need has been one of my driv­ing pas­sions,” Wax­man said in a state­ment. “In the 1980s, I led the fight to ex­pand Medi­caid, provid­ing health cov­er­age to mil­lions of low-in­come chil­dren, preg­nant wo­men, and seni­ors. In the 1990s, I worked with Sen­at­or Ted Kennedy to provide cov­er­age to the chil­dren of work­ing fam­il­ies through the Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram. And in 2010, when I was chair of the Com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Com­merce, one of my lifelong dreams was fi­nally achieved: Con­gress passed the Af­ford­able Care Act, which guar­an­tees ac­cess to af­ford­able health cov­er­age to all Amer­ic­ans.”

Wax­man ac­know­ledged in his re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment that that “there are ele­ments of Con­gress today that I do not like,” but he said he still en­joys the job.

“I still feel youth­ful and en­er­get­ic, but I re­cog­nize if I want to ex­per­i­ence a life out­side of Con­gress, I need to start soon,” he said. “Pub­lic of­fice is not the only way to serve, and I want to ex­plore oth­er av­en­ues while I still can.”

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