Henry Waxman Opens Up About His Life as a Lobbyist

How the crusading lawmaker wound up lobbying.

This Illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 6/13/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
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Nora Caplan-Bricker
June 12, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Oh, how lib­er­al Wash­ing­ton rent its gar­ments when re­tir­ing Rep. Henry Wax­man an­nounced that he, even he, would be join­ing the hordes of former law­makers ply­ing their con­nec­tions on be­half of spe­cial in­terests. “I am ser­i­ously sur­prised that Henry Wax­man is be­com­ing a lob­by­ist,” tweeted Jef­frey Young, who cov­ers health care for The Huff­ing­ton Post, when the news broke in Feb­ru­ary. “Et tu, Wax­man?” chimed in Gab­ri­ela Schneider, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the gov­ern­ment-trans­par­ency group the Sun­light Found­a­tion.

The note of be­tray­al wasn’t hard to un­der­stand: Wax­man, who’s reg­u­larly ranked with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy as among the most ef­fect­ive Demo­crat­ic law­makers of the last cen­tury, helped trans­form a gen­er­a­tion of pro­gress­ive pri­or­it­ies in­to laws, from the mod­ern Clean Air Act to the Af­ford­able Care Act. He was also, as rank­ing mem­ber and then chair­man of the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, an ag­gress­ive crit­ic of the in­flu­ence in­dustry. “He sponsored le­gis­la­tion to re­strict the re­volving door,” says Craig Hol­man, of the gov­ern­ment watch­dog group Pub­lic Cit­izen, re­fer­ring to the former con­gress­man’s ef­forts to tight­en eth­ics rules on lob­by­ists in 2007; see­ing him spin through it “cer­tainly did leave a bad taste in my mouth.”

No one was more sur­prised by Wax­man’s de­cision, however, than Wax­man him­self. “I just didn’t want to do lob­by­ing,” he tells me when we meet in the mod­ish red-and-white con­fer­ence room at Wax­man Strategies, the P.R. and polit­ic­al-con­sult­ing shop foun­ded by his son, where Wax­man now ad­vises cli­ents. So how did he wind up here, and how does he feel about it? The 75-year-old — who looks vir­tu­ally identic­al to the pho­tos from his hey­day, bald pate and mous­tache in­cluded — pours me a mug of cof­fee and launches in­to the story of his search for the per­fect second ca­reer.

K Street was ac­tu­ally the first stop on his jour­ney, he says — but the role he en­vi­sioned for him­self didn’t in­volve the “L” word. “I know some former mem­bers who’ve gone to law firms, and they do strategy, give ad­vice,” he says. He liked the idea of count­ing law­yers and former law­makers among his col­leagues, and he hoped to work out a flex­ible ar­range­ment where he could man­age his own time and bring in his own cli­ents. But he quickly learned that “they had high ex­pect­a­tions of how much money I was go­ing to bring in and wheth­er I would lobby for their cli­ents,” he says. Con­flicts with the firm’s ex­ist­ing roster might have pre­cluded him from work­ing with the kinds of cli­ents he wanted. (For ex­ample, if his em­ploy­er already rep­res­en­ted Big Pharma, they might veto the ad­di­tion of a gen­er­ic-drug man­u­fac­turer.) Plus, at this phase in his life, he didn’t like the sound of the hours. Bot­tom line: “The more I learned about how I would fit in, the more I felt I wouldn’t fit in.”

So, Wax­man tried to get cre­at­ive. He went up to New York to meet with some in­vest­ment firms to of­fer “my take on where health care is­sues and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues are go­ing,” he says, but he left with the sense that what he wanted to do wouldn’t be a full-time job. He set up a few teach­ing gigs, at the Johns Hop­kins Bloomberg School of Pub­lic Health and at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia, Los Angeles. He toyed with — and says he con­tin­ues to con­tem­plate — oth­er ideas as well. He has con­sidered serving as a court-ap­poin­ted mon­it­or for com­pan­ies try­ing to straight­en out their acts. He has also thought of work­ing as a me­di­at­or — something he thinks he’d be good at. “I’ve al­ways looked for com­prom­ises,” he says. “Every bill I’ve ever au­thored had bi­par­tis­an sup­port ex­cept for one, and that was the Af­ford­able Care Act.” His P.R.-minded son, Mi­chael, listen­ing in, points out that this is a pretty good pitch. “So if any­body reads this art­icle and would like a me­di­at­or”… ” the former law­maker trails off.

There were some paths he knew he didn’t want to take. “I don’t want to ask any­one for money,” he says. “I’ve done that in cam­paigns over the years.” And, of course, “I’m a law­yer,” he says. “I could’ve gone to any law firm. But the value I have is know­ing how gov­ern­ment works, know­ing how Con­gress works. I could take on lit­ig­a­tion, send out in­ter­rog­at­ives, and take de­pos­itions. But that didn’t seem like a good use of my time.”

Lob­by­ing, on the oth­er hand, in­volves all the chess-like strategy of law­mak­ing without the ca­pri­cious hours (the last time Wax­man vis­ited the Hill, he says, his friends in the minor­ity told him they’d be there un­til 11:30 p.m., be­cause they had to “wait and wait and wait to be able to vote ‘no‘“Š”) or the tire­some fun­drais­ing and cam­paign­ing. In oth­er words, lob­by­ing star­ted to seem like the best way for him to use the skills he’d ac­crued in his 40-year le­gis­lat­ive ca­reer. “There are al­ways the people who say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be a lob­by­ist be­cause some­how you’re not re­main­ing true to your val­ues,‘“Š” says Tom Downey, a close friend of Wax­man’s from his early days in Con­gress, who is now a lob­by­ist him­self. But the causes Wax­man cham­pioned when he was in Con­gress need ad­voc­ates, too, Downey says. “Why should he be con­signed to just writ­ing or lec­tur­ing about it when, in fact, he could have a dir­ect in­flu­ence on his col­leagues by shar­ing his wis­dom and his ex­per­i­ence?” One could even ar­gue that lob­by­ing “is the right thing for him to do.”

Early on in Wax­man’s job hunt, his son had floated the pos­sib­il­ity that they might team up. In the past, Wax­man Strategies had run P.R. cam­paigns for a dis­abled vet­er­ans’ group and an im­mig­ra­tion re­source cen­ter — the kinds of pro­jects the eld­er Wax­man could see him­self get­ting be­hind. In Feb­ru­ary, Wax­man an­nounced that he had taken his son up on the of­fer. Wax­man’s per­son­al cli­ents, he says, are “the same causes that I ad­voc­ated for when I was in Con­gress.” Those in­clude 340B Health, a mem­ber­ship or­gan­iz­a­tion for hos­pit­als that serve low-in­come people (through the 340B drug dis­count pro­gram that Wax­man wrote); the en­vir­on­ment­al group Cli­mate Ad­visers; and “Save Wire­less Choice,” a cam­paign launched by a co­ali­tion in­clud­ing T-Mo­bile and Sprint to re­serve more band­width for com­pan­ies that aren’t AT&T or Ve­r­i­zon. “It’s a good fit, be­cause I’m not un­der a lot of pres­sure to just rep­res­ent people and bring in money,” Wax­man says. “Some”…” he turns laugh­ingly to Mi­chael, “but not a lot.”

“Even here, I wasn’t sure I would lobby,” Wax­man says. But now, he sounds al­most cer­tain that, at the end of the one-year “cool­ing-off peri­od” to which re­tir­ing law­makers are sub­ject, he will re­gister as a lob­by­ist. “I don’t think of my­self as a tra­di­tion­al lob­by­ist, tak­ing whatever cli­ents come in the door,” he says, but, “a lob­by­ist is an ad­voc­ate, like a law­yer is an ad­voc­ate. “… If I wanted to ad­voc­ate for a cli­ent, I want to do everything I can for them. “… And if it means that I go to the ad­min­is­tra­tion, or to Con­gress, or else­where, I want that to be dis­closed. I’d be proud of it.”

Wax­man’s crit­ics aren’t ne­ces­sar­ily con­vinced. “Even if you may start out think­ing, ‘I’m only go­ing to work for cli­ents who I like,’ you’ve already made the step that money is really the No. 1 factor” — or, at the very least, a factor — in the work you’ll ac­cept, says Hol­man. “Those cli­ents will pay a great deal for Henry Wax­man.” And yet, if Wax­man’s jour­ney is any il­lus­tra­tion, money isn’t the only force fun­nel­ing law­makers in­to lob­by­ing. When their days on Cap­it­ol Hill are done, former mem­bers must ask them­selves what they’re best pre­pared to do next. Are they to blame if the an­swer lies on the oth­er side of the re­volving door?

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