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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