Henry Waxman: A Relic of the Era When Congress Used to Work

Few legislators have had as great an impact on American society as the retiring Californian.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

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 Representative 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 Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republican Representative 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.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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