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

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 legislator 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 “centrist.” 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 healthcare. 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 his 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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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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