Waxman’s Departure Marks the End of an Era

Almost no one in the past 50 years has had a broader impact on American society.

WASHINGTON - MAY 31:  U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) speaks during a hearing before the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee May 31, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The hearing was to examine the protection of the nation's electric grid from physical and cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities.
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
Feb. 4, 2014, 4:42 p.m.

I was in­tro­duced to Con­gress in 1965 by a newly min­ted pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Min­nesota, Gene Ei­den­berg, who had come to the state fresh from a stint as an Amer­ic­an Polit­ic­al Sci­ence As­so­ci­ation con­gres­sion­al fel­low work­ing for the late Hale Boggs, the ma­jor­ity whip. Ei­den­berg sat across from D.B. Harde­man, a le­gendary fig­ure who had earli­er been the top as­sist­ant to Speak­er Sam Ray­burn. In his class on Con­gress, a cha­ris­mat­ic and dy­nam­ic Ei­den­berg mes­mer­ized me with his stor­ies of life in Con­gress, of the lar­ger-than-life fig­ures he worked with and en­countered, of the sheer ma­gic and messi­ness of law­mak­ing.

That class began my lifelong love af­fair with the in­sti­tu­tion — which, as reg­u­lar read­ers know, has in­cluded plenty of peri­ods of tough love, in­dig­na­tion, and out­rage at the be­tray­al of reg­u­lar or­der or fun­da­ment­al prin­ciples. In­spired by Ei­den­berg, I fol­lowed in his foot­steps with my own con­gres­sion­al fel­low­ship in 1969-70. There I worked for Rep. Don­ald M. Fraser, with a desk in­side his own per­son­al of­fice, and I watched, mes­mer­ized again, as he showed what a com­mit­ted, smart, and gutsy le­gis­lat­or could do. Fraser, des­pite a ju­ni­or status in a body then wholly dom­in­ated by the seni­or sys­tem, found ways to make things hap­pen. He fought the Greek mil­it­ary junta and in­jec­ted hu­man rights in­to Amer­ic­an for­eign policy at a time when it was at best an af­ter­thought; pi­on­eered a set of party and con­gres­sion­al re­forms that ul­ti­mately trans­formed the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­at­ing pro­cess and the seni­or­ity sys­tem; cre­ated the Dis­trict of Columbia’s Ad­vis­ory Neigh­bor­hood Com­mis­sions, an im­port­ant in­nov­a­tion in loc­al gov­ernance; and on and on.

From Fraser I de­veloped a deep ap­pre­ci­ation for the craft of the le­gis­lat­or. Some of the good ones used their avail­able bully pul­pits, however puny, to frame and in­flu­ence agen­das; some used their mas­tery of the rules and pro­ced­ures to achieve policy ends; some built im­mense ex­pert­ise in im­port­ant, if ar­cane, policy areas and used that ex­pert­ise to craft good le­gis­la­tion that made a real dif­fer­ence in the world. Fraser’s friend Bob Kast­en­mei­er, for ex­ample, fo­cused for three dec­ades on trade­marks, pat­ents, and in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty, not sub­jects that would bring wide ac­claim, but which in today’s glob­al eco­nomy are crit­ic­al to Amer­ic­an prosper­ity — and the coun­try is much bet­ter off be­cause of his ef­forts.

Paul Sar­banes built a repu­ta­tion in the House, and then the Sen­ate, as the con­sum­mate le­gis­lat­ive crafts­man, who cared more about the de­tails of bills than who got the cred­it for them.

My her­oes in­side Con­gress have been the le­gis­lat­ors, and there are many in both parties. Tom Mann and I ded­ic­ated our 2006 book The Broken Branch to Demo­crat­ic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moyni­han and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Barber Con­able, both from New York, be­cause of our ap­pre­ci­ation for their skills and roles as le­gis­lat­ors. I have yet to meet a smarter, more de­cent, or more cap­able law­maker than the late Barber Con­able. My Hall of Fame list is a long one, for both parties; some GOP ex­amples would be Barber’s suc­cessors as top Re­pub­lic­ans on Ways and Means, Bill Fren­zel and Bill Gradis­on; John Port­er; Bob Michel; Ray La­Hood; Chris Shays; Tom Dav­is; Vin Weber. When I worked in the mid-1970s on a pan­el to re­form the Sen­ate’s com­mit­tee sys­tem, a fresh­man named Pete Domen­ici worked back­break­ing hours des­pite get­ting zero polit­ic­al cred­it and fa­cing the wrath of seni­or sen­at­ors who would lose as­sign­ments and jur­is­dic­tion. He told me he wanted to leave the Sen­ate a bet­ter place than it was when he entered it. The chair of that ef­fort, Ad­lai Steven­son IV, worked even harder and made even more en­emies — and went on from there to take the more thank­less task of chair­ing the newly min­ted Eth­ics Com­mit­tee.

I watched with ad­mir­a­tion when lib­er­als Ted Kennedy and George Miller, who re­cently an­nounced his re­tire­ment from the House, worked with con­ser­vat­ive John Boehner to craft the No Child Left Be­hind Act in 2001 — it was a pleas­ure to watch real le­gis­lat­ors craft real le­gis­la­tion. I re­main a huge ad­mirer of Alan Simpson and John Mc­Cain. True, both have said and done things that have made me cringe. But nobody cares more about mak­ing this coun­try and its Con­gress work than Alan Simpson. To watch him team with House Demo­crat Ron Mazzoli to pull to­geth­er an earli­er gen­er­a­tion of im­mig­ra­tion re­forms was to watch a mas­ter at work. As for Mc­Cain, when I told him in the 1990s that I thought his first-gen­er­a­tion Mc­Cain-Fein­gold cam­paign fin­ance re­form was un­work­able, des­pite the kudos it got from ed­it­or­i­al pages, he made it clear that he did not want an is­sue but a bill that could both pass and work. And he did everything one could ask to make that hap­pen, and to get it en­acted. Good le­gis­lat­ors are first and fore­most prob­lem solv­ers, and that fits both of these guys.

It is a tru­ism now that Con­gress and the Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al sys­tem are gripped in sharp par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion. But po­lar­iz­a­tion does not lead in­ex­or­ably to stale­mate or grid­lock.

By any reas­on­able stand­ard, Simpson and Mc­Cain are strong con­ser­vat­ives, just as by any stand­ard Ted Kennedy was a strong lib­er­al. Their in­tense views and strongly held prin­ciples did not keep them from work­ing tire­lessly to find solu­tions to vex­ing na­tion­al prob­lems, through a com­bin­a­tion of com­prom­ise and the search for com­mon ground. Simpson did it with Mazzoli; Mc­Cain did it with Fein­gold (and oth­er lib­er­als on cli­mate change and im­mig­ra­tion); Kennedy did it with Or­rin Hatch, Strom Thur­mond, and count­less oth­er strong con­ser­vat­ives. John Din­gell, an­oth­er strong lib­er­al (on most is­sues,) found com­mon ground with con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans on vot­ing rights, clean wa­ter, health care, and many oth­ers.

And that brings me to Henry Wax­man. It is a little dif­fi­cult for me to write about Wax­man. He and his fam­ily have been friends with me and my fam­ily for more than 30 years. I view him in part through a dif­fer­ent lens — that of Henry the per­son who is a gentle, warm, kind, re­li­gious fam­ily man with a won­der­ful wife and kids, a con­sum­mate mensch. But I can also step out­side that set­ting to ana­lyze Wax­man’s 40-year ca­reer in the House. Here is the bot­tom line: With the pos­sible ex­cep­tions of Ted Kennedy and John Din­gell, no one in the past 50 years or more has had a broad­er im­pact on Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety than Wax­man.

It should come as no sur­prise that Wax­man’s re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment brought glee from House Re­pub­lic­ans. His world­view is not theirs; the com­mon ground he found with Re­pub­lic­ans over dec­ades on many is­sues is gone now, with a Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence tilted so far to the right. It was a touch amus­ing to see The Wash­ing­ton Post refer last week to Idaho Re­pub­lic­an Mike Simpson as a “mod­er­ate.” By the stand­ards of a few years ago, or by any reas­on­able stand­ards, Simpson is a staunch con­ser­vat­ive.

Just as Wax­man by any stand­ard is a staunch and pas­sion­ate lib­er­al. But Wax­man’s in­cred­ible suc­cess as a le­gis­lat­or was built on find­ing Re­pub­lic­an part­ners, or at least Re­pub­lic­an al­lies, to ad­vance his goals of al­le­vi­at­ing poverty, clean­ing up the air and wa­ter, fight­ing the health scourge of to­bacco, re­du­cing car­bon emis­sions, and ex­pand­ing health in­sur­ance and health care. Henry has done it with le­gis­la­tion craf­ted in the En­ergy Com­merce Com­mit­tee, in tough ne­go­ti­ations in con­fer­ence com­mit­tees, via hear­ings in the Gov­ern­ment Op­er­a­tions or Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee. Jonath­an Cohn of The New Re­pub­lic lis­ted Wax­man’s le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments, and they are stag­ger­ing in num­ber and breadth.

What most im­pressed me about Henry’s re­cord as a le­gis­lat­or was not what he ac­com­plished along­side a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent (al­though I have not seen a more im­press­ive ef­fort than the one Wax­man and Ed­ward Mar­key showed in passing cap and trade in the House). It was what he was able to do when Ron­ald Re­agan was in the saddle and when cut­ting gov­ern­ment so­cial pro­grams was as­cend­ant and seem­ingly in­ex­or­able. Little by little, bit by bit, Wax­man ex­pan­ded Medi­caid to chil­dren and poor preg­nant wo­men, and found oth­er ways to shape and strengthen the so­cial safety net. Through a com­bin­a­tion of polit­ic­al savvy, un­matched know­ledge of the pro­grams and their de­tails, in­cred­ible pa­tience, and great ne­go­ti­at­ing skills, Wax­man got half a loaf here, a quarter loaf there. And by the end of the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion, we had a much big­ger safety-net loaf than had ex­is­ted be­fore 1980.

A few years back, I wrote a column about Din­gell, Mar­key, and Wax­man, three mas­ter law­makers on the House Com­merce Com­mit­tee, and how each was char­ac­ter­ized by in­cred­ibly smart, strong, and savvy staffs, with top people so loy­al they would keep com­ing back to work for their long­time bosses, des­pite hav­ing of­ten taken ma­jor-league pay cuts. Nobody has had bet­ter, smarter, and more loy­al staffers than Wax­man, an­oth­er key to his great suc­cess.

That staff depth and ex­pert­ise were in­stru­ment­al in Wax­man’s suc­cess in in­vest­ig­a­tions and over­sight. He made sure he and his staff did their home­work be­fore hav­ing hear­ings or call­ing wit­nesses, and they rarely if ever jumped the gun or leaked slanted in­form­a­tion to pre­judge or pre­ju­dice a case. Where he could, he worked with Re­pub­lic­ans. I got many calls from re­port­ers when Wax­man and Re­pub­lic­an Tom Dav­is held a bal­ly­hooed hear­ing on drug use in sports, the hear­ing that show­cased, and im­peached, Ro­ger Clem­ens. “What busi­ness is this of Con­gress? Isn’t this just show­boat­ing?” were typ­ic­al ques­tions. I said I thought it was very much in Con­gress’s pur­view: Sports are huge eco­nom­ic ma­chines, gen­er­at­ing bil­lions in rev­en­ue and serving as role mod­els for many mil­lions of young Amer­ic­ans. As we look at the dy­nam­ic now, with the dam­age that per­form­ance-en­han­cing drugs have done to sports and the ac­tions taken by leagues to com­bat the prob­lem, it is clear that the bi­par­tis­an hear­ing, with the ground­work laid by the staff, made a big and pos­it­ive dif­fer­ence.

Wax­man at 74 is young and healthy enough to write an­oth­er chapter in his ca­reer (and, I hope and ex­pect, to spend more time with his fam­ily and friends). But along­side his in­cred­ible policy achieve­ments, he leaves a tem­plate for how a law­maker can and should op­er­ate. You don’t have to be a cent­rist to make things hap­pen in Con­gress. You do have to re­spect your own in­sti­tu­tion; un­der­stand how to build co­ali­tions; rely on hon­est facts and fig­ures and top-qual­ity ex­pert­ise; tran­scend tri­bal dif­fer­ences; and re­cog­nize that much that is worth­while will re­quire years of ef­fort. There are reas­ons why those ax­ioms won’t work in today’s deeply dys­func­tion­al Con­gress. But there is no good reas­on why they shouldn’t.

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