The End of the Power of One

Henry Waxman’s retirement captures Congress’s transformation into a quasi-parliamentary institution.

Rep. Henry Waxman in his Rayburn Building office
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 7, 2014, midnight

Henry Wax­man could be the last per­son in Wash­ing­ton to ac­know­ledge that there may nev­er be an­oth­er Henry Wax­man. His de­par­ture cap­tures a fun­da­ment­al shift in Con­gress that has vastly re­duced the abil­ity of any in­di­vidu­al mem­ber to shape policy as con­sequen­tially as he did.

Wax­man, a Demo­crat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ive from Los Angeles first elec­ted in the 1974 Wa­ter­gate class, an­nounced last week he would re­tire after this ses­sion. No oth­er le­gis­lat­or over his four-dec­ade ca­reer — and few in any era — af­fected the daily lives of more Amer­ic­ans than Wax­man, who shep­her­ded in­to law land­mark bills on clean air, clean wa­ter, ac­cess to health care, to­bacco reg­u­la­tion, nu­tri­tion­al la­beling, food safety, HIV/AIDS, and gen­er­ic drugs.

Over his re­mark­able ten­ure, Wax­man em­bod­ied the defin­i­tion of a great le­gis­lat­or: He cre­ated co­ali­tions that would not have ex­is­ted without him. Most of his ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments were passed with sig­ni­fic­ant Re­pub­lic­an sup­port. Wax­man demon­strated that a single le­gis­lat­or, with enough skill and tenacity, can leave an in­delible mark.

That has been true through most of Con­gress’s his­tory. But since the 1980s, power has passed from in­di­vidu­al le­gis­lat­ors to the parties col­lect­ively. Each side has cent­ral­ized more au­thor­ity in the party lead­er­ship. And far few­er mem­bers are will­ing to buck their party’s con­sensus to part­ner with le­gis­lat­ors from the oth­er side, no mat­ter how skill­fully they craft a com­prom­ise.

The res­ult has been to greatly di­min­ish the abil­ity of even the most bril­liant le­gis­lat­ors — wheth­er Wax­man or sen­at­ors like Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole — to break stale­mates by cre­at­ively as­sem­bling co­ali­tions no one else could en­vi­sion. “It’s hard for a guy like that to emerge now on either side,” says former Rep. Tom Dav­is, the Re­pub­lic­an who chaired the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee when Wax­man was the rank­ing Demo­crat. Adds Steve El­men­d­orf, a former top House Demo­crat­ic aide, “The lead­er­ship is not go­ing to give you the space to do it.”

In­stead, in al­most all cases, each party’s lead­er­ship now de­cides wheth­er to reach agree­ment with the op­pos­i­tion — or, more of­ten, to not agree. Rather than ne­go­ti­at­ing their own com­prom­ises, le­gis­lat­ors are ex­pec­ted to sa­lute their party’s col­lect­ive de­cision. “The best way to put it,” Dav­is says, “is we’ve turned in­to a par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem.”

Wax­man’s own ca­reer il­lus­trates the con­strict­ing ef­fect of this new dy­nam­ic. His re­form-minded class of 1974 drove a his­tor­ic de­cent­ral­iz­a­tion of au­thor­ity, passing rules that shattered the power of seni­or­ity and forced pre­vi­ously auto­crat­ic com­mit­tee chairs to re­spond more to their party’s rank-and-file con­sensus. That era’s House speak­ers, re­cog­niz­ing the demo­crat­iz­ing cur­rent, gov­erned lightly and gave mem­bers enorm­ous lat­it­ude. In an em­blem­at­ic mo­ment, Wax­man re­calls that while he and Rep. John Din­gell, then-chair­man of the mighty House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, fought their ti­tan­ic duel over ex­tend­ing the Clean Air Act through the 1980s, Speak­ers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright es­sen­tially stood aside. “Neither took that much of an act­ive role be­cause they didn’t see that as their job,” Wax­man told me.

Wax­man thrived in this flu­id at­mo­sphere. He at­trac­ted 159 GOP votes for his land­mark AIDS bill in 1990, 154 for the Clean Air Act amend­ments he passed in 1989 after fi­nally out­last­ing Din­gell, and so much bi­par­tis­an con­sensus on is­sues like safe wa­ter and nu­tri­tion la­beling that the bills passed without re­cor­ded votes. The House ap­proved his gen­er­ic-drug bill un­an­im­ously. It was some­times re­luct­ant, but Ron­ald Re­agan and George H.W. Bush signed in­to law many of Wax­man’s greatest ac­com­plish­ments, par­tic­u­larly his ten­a­cious step-by-step Medi­caid ex­pan­sion across the 1980s.

But the Con­gress that Wax­man mastered is gone. Start­ing with Newt Gin­grich in 1995, each party’s lead­er­ship has seized more con­trol over the con­gres­sion­al agenda: In con­trast to O’Neill’s hands-off pos­ture, Wax­man re­called, then-Speak­er Nancy Pelosi com­pelled the three rel­ev­ant com­mit­tee chairs to start the Af­ford­able Care Act de­bate with a com­mon le­gis­lat­ive draft. Bi­par­tis­an sup­port is in­fin­itely more dif­fi­cult to at­tract today, both be­cause party lead­ers and in­terest groups dis­cour­age it and be­cause po­lar­ized pop­u­la­tion pat­terns have culled the num­ber of House cent­rists. While Wax­man drew broad bi­par­tis­an back­ing on clean air in 1989, he at­trac­ted just eight House Re­pub­lic­ans to his cli­mate bill in 2010, even though he based it on a pro­pos­al from an al­li­ance of en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and busi­ness lead­ers. That ex­per­i­ence still frus­trates Wax­man. “It was a shock that the Re­pub­lic­ans “¦ wer­en’t in­ter­ested in what the busi­ness com­munity had to say,” he says.

To ob­serv­ers such as Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion seni­or fel­low Thomas Mann, these changes mean that in today’s quasi-par­lia­ment­ary Con­gress “in­di­vidu­als are just really di­min­ished in what they can ac­com­plish.” One who re­jects that con­clu­sion is Wax­man. Con­gress may be para­lyzed now, he says, with many Re­pub­lic­ans in par­tic­u­lar be­liev­ing “com­prom­ise is a dirty word,” but he in­sists that de­term­ined le­gis­lat­ors can cut through the po­lar­iz­a­tion to forge mean­ing­ful agree­ments. “I still think it can be done,” he says firmly. Op­tim­ism and pa­tience have been two of Wax­man’s greatest le­gis­lat­ive as­sets — but it will take big shifts in the way Con­gress op­er­ates, and prob­ably many years, for his con­fid­ence to be re­war­ded.

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