Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the most prolific and successful lawmakers of the modern era, has decided to retire at the end of this congressional session.
“Forty years have gone by very quickly. I have a great deal of satisfaction in our legislative accomplishments. There’s obviously more to be done,” Waxman, 74, said Wednesday in an interview. “But I’m in good health, and my family is in good health. This is a good time to move on and have another chapter if I am to do anything after Congress.”
The walls of his suite in the Rayburn House Office Building are covered with picture frames holding pens that were used by every president since Jimmy Carter to sign legislation that Waxman played a crucial role in writing.
Among that legislation were laws to make infant formula safer and more nutritious (1980), bring low-priced generic drugs to market (1984), clean the air (1990), provide services and medical care to people with AIDS (1996), and reform and modernize the Postal Service (2006). He was also instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
The secret to effective legislating, Waxman said, is “you outlast [the opposition]. You keep working. You keep looking for combinations.”
“Everything I ever passed into law, with one exception, had bipartisan support,” he added. “And the exception was the Affordable Care Act, where the Republicans should have been working with us but didn’t want to give President Obama a victory, even though the law was based on a lot of Republican ideas.” (Waxman had once advocated a single-payer, Canadian-style health-care system.)
Many Republicans would disagree with the unapologetically liberal Los Angeles congressman’s assessment of himself as a builder of bridges across the aisle.
For all the finesse he showed at writing laws as he rose on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman was also legendarily aggressive in his role as the Democrats’ chief inquisitor on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
With one of the most highly regarded staffs on Capitol Hill, he led investigations that delved into the tobacco-industry marketing practices, the use of steroids in professional sports, the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and the flawed intelligence that was used to justify the Iraq war.
Bald, soft-spoken and standing only 5 foot 5, Waxman appears surprisingly unintimidating for one who was dubbed the“Democrats’ Eliot Ness” by the liberal Nation magazine. The answer to a 2012 “Jeopardy!” question about him was: “The mustache of justice.”
The scope and number of legislative achievements that Waxman can claim — through Democrats and Republicans in the White House, and while serving in both the majority and minority in the House — would seem nearly unimaginable in today’s gridlocked, polarized Congress.
But he insisted that his decision to leave Congress was not the result of frustration or the fact that Democrats appear unlikely to regain the House in 2014.
“Things are always difficult,” Waxman insisted.
“For the most part, those laws have been very important and successful and are now taken for granted,” he said of his accomplishments. “People don’t realize that it was a big fight over many years to get a Clean Air Act adopted and signed, which is one of the most effective environmental laws that we have ever had in this country. And it took a long time just to get nutritional-labeling information so that people can follow their diets and control what they eat.
“Even the HIV/AIDS legislation known as the Ryan White act was not accomplished for almost a decade after we held our first hearings just to find out what was going on when gay men were dying from a rare cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma, and no one knew why this was happening and seemed to be happening in geometric progression,” Waxman recalled.
Waxman’s departure also marks the end of an era. He and fellow Californian George Miller, who announced his retirement this month — are the last two continuously serving House Democrats from the huge class of “Watergate babies” elected in 1974, just three months after President Richard M. Nixon resigned.
Seventy-five Democrats in all and half younger than 40, they were hailed as a reform-minded generation that would upset the old order and remake Washington.
In their first years in office, they toppled three change-resistant Democratic committee chairmen, which was a nearly unheard of act of insubordination.
But by Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the center of political gravity had swung back to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Yet Waxman found ways to expand programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, even as Reagan was cutting taxes and taking aim at social programs.
“The sine qua non of Henry’s accomplishments came during the Reagan administration,” said congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “It wasn’t just holding the line. He managed to get half a loaf here and half a loaf there, and he wound up with a bigger loaf of bread for things he cared about. It wasn’t that he had a lot of leverage. He just knew how to negotiate.”
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post
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