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

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
See more stories about...
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.”

What We're Following See More »
TWO-THIRDS
Voters Want Medical Records
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Even though they dislike both of them, the American people want to know that its presidential candidates are healthy. "Nearly two-thirds of registered voters think presidential candidates should release details about their medical histories, according to a new Morning Consult poll." In the new poll, 64 percent of Americans say the candidates should release their medical reports, up nine percent from May.

Source:
OPTIMISM ABOUT STATE OF ECONOMY
Yellen Paves Way For Interest Rate Hike
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a speech Friday at the Federal Reserve's Jackson Hole summit, Fed chair Janet Yellen sounded an optimistic tone about the state of the American economy, before implying that a hike in interest rates is on the horizon. The Fed "continues to anticipate that gradual increases in the federal funds rate will be appropriate over time to achieve and sustain employment and inflation near our statutory objectives," Yellen said in her address.

Source:
10 CASES
Study Finds Little Evidence of Voter Fraud
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

While politicians argue over whether or not to be worried about potential voter fraud come November, a study tells us it is not a legitimate concern. "A News21 analysis four years ago of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases in 50 states found that while some fraud had occurred since 2000, the rate was infinitesimal compared with the 146 million registered voters in that 12-year span. The analysis found only 10 cases of voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that could be prevented by voter ID at the polls."

Source:
$7.3 MILLION IN JULY
Donations to DNC Relied on ‘Workaround’
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The Democratic National Committee's "influx of money" in July "owes in part to an unprecedented workaround of political spending limits that lets the party tap into millions of dollars more" from Hillary Clinton’s biggest donors. "At least $7.3 million of the DNC’s July total originated with payments from hundreds of major donors who had already contributed the maximum $33,400 to the national committee." Those payments were "first bundled by the Hillary Victory Fund and then transferred to the state Democratic parties, which effectively stripped the donors’ names and sent the money to the DNC as a lump sum."

Source:
OFF COAST OF HAWAII
Obama Creates World’s Largest Protected Reserve
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

President Obama this morning "created the largest protected area on the planet Friday, by expanding a national marine monument off the coast of his native Hawaii to encompass 582,578 square miles of land and sea."

Source:
×