Rep. Henry Waxman, Ferocious Liberal, Says He Will Retire

Jan 30, 2014
Originally published on January 30, 2014 8:00 pm

Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), a key architect of the Affordable Care Act and for four decades a ferocious liberal voice on matters of health and the environment, revealed Thursday that he plans to retire at the end of the year.

Waxman's news comes on the heels of a similar announcement from another liberal California "Watergate baby" elected in 1974, Rep. George Miller. Both are top allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also of California.

"Forty years have gone by very quickly. I have a great deal of satisfaction in our legislative accomplishments," Waxman, 74, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Waxman, who becomes one of more than 30 current members of the House who don't plan to return, told The New York Times that legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill contributed to his decision.

"It's been frustrating because of the extremism of Tea Party Republicans," he said. "Nothing seems to be happening."

He'll leave with the health care legislation he helped write struggling to stabilize following dramatic rollout problems. But his legacy is chock-a-block with legislative accomplishments: from helping to write the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that tackled acid rain-causing power plant emissions, to taking on the tobacco industry and its marketing practices.

As chairman from 2007-2009 of the principal investigative committee in the House, the Oversight and Government Reform panel, he directed inquiries that included those into waste and fraud in government contracting, and into the high cost of prescription drugs.

Waxman, who once headed the West Los Angeles Democratic machine and wrote "The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works," exercised his political skills in 2008 when he used a secret ballot to oust fellow Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan as chairman of the powerful Committee on Energy and Commerce.

As NPR's Julie Rovner reported at the time, Waxman had spent 16 years heading the Commerce panel's Health and Environment subcommittee. "There," Rovner said, "the more liberal Waxman tangled with Dingell over clean air and other environmental legislation."

But they worked together on health issues, and that partnership, Sara Rosenbaum of George Washington University said at the time, resulted in "accomplishments on behalf of working poor families and children and pregnant women and people with disabilities and the frail elderly."

During the 1980s and 1990s, Waxman managed to use budget-cutting bills to expand coverage for many of the poorest Americans. Rosenbaum says that by making the changes bit by bit over a period of years, the eventual accomplishment was large indeed.

"Congressman Waxman, with the great leadership and support of Congressman Dingell, made it possible for an additional 15 to 20 million children to be covered by Medicaid," Rosenbaum said.

As chairman of the health and environment subcommittee, the diminutive Waxman presided over ground-breaking hearings that featured tobacco company CEOs. The efforts he led resulted in the Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that, among its provisions, required stronger tobacco warning labels, as well as restrictions on how tobacco companies could advertise and market their products.

His push for smoke-free workplaces and public areas failed, but it presaged successful efforts that would come later.

He also sponsored the Ryan White Care Act that directs federal money toward the treatment of HIV and AIDS.

Waxman's wealthy California district includes Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Malibu, and is considered safely Democratic.

As he prepared to leave at the end of the session, Waxman told the Times: "I'm proud of the Affordable Care Act. I think it's a terrific piece of legislation."

And he gave this response to the Post when asked about the secret to effective legislation: "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. The exception? The Affordable Care Act.

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Forty years ago in 1974, the country was reeling from the Watergate scandals and the resignation of President Nixon. The Democratic Party, which already held a strong majority in the House of Representatives, picked up almost 50 more seats. In January 1975, when the new House was sworn in, the so-called Watergate class was full of young reformers who brought new energy to Washington.

And one of them was Henry Waxman. He was 35 years old. And today at a still very young age of 74, Congressman Waxman announced that after 20 terms in the House, he will call it a career at the end of this year. Welcome to the program, Congressman.


SIEGEL: Why quit so soon?


WAXMAN: Forty years went by so quickly. I thought perhaps maybe I would be in Congress for 20 years and I thought that was a long time. But after 40 years, I think it's time for somebody new, somebody younger to come in and take on the fight here in Congress. And if I'm going to transition to a life outside of Congress, I think this is a good time to do it.

SIEGEL: I'm going to remind people listening that during this biblical span of time that you've been in the House, you're the man who made the tobacco company CEOs swear under oath that nicotine was not addictive. You championed labels that tell us what the nutritional value of food is, clean water, clean air, Medicare, Medicaid, treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. And you also investigated performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. For you, if you had to be remembered for one achievement in Congress, what would it be?

WAXMAN: I don't want to be remembered for any one achievement. They all are so important. High-profile issues have been the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water law. In the health area, we've expanded health care for low-income people and the Affordable Care Act, which, for the first time, will mean that millions can get health insurance, notwithstanding the fact they have pre-existing medical conditions or can't afford it because will get some tax subsidies to help them pay for it. Those are the major ones.

But when people can control their diet and see the nutritional label before they purchase a product, that's important. People take it for granted but that resulted from a long fight. And the HIV/AIDS bill took us over a decade because Senator Jesse Helms kept on trying to stop it. He said if we pass something to help people with HIV/AIDS, we're going to only encourage more gay sex and intravenous drug use, which, of course, was absurd.

SIEGEL: Thinking back on all these years in the House, what for you is the biggest piece of unfinished business? What's the legislation that you most would've wanted to see that you haven't seen?

WAXMAN: I regret that we have not passed legislation to deal with the climate change and the energy policy that would lead to lower greenhouse gas pollution. This is a genuine threat and yet, the Republicans in the House refuse to hear from the scientists, deny the science, and go to bat for the oil, gas, and coal industry as if it didn't make any difference. If there's a 10 percent chance that the scientists are right, why would take the risk that we're going to pollute the only atmosphere that we share on this planet to the point where we're going to face terrible catastrophic consequences? And we're seeing it now with all these climate problems.

SIEGEL: Congressman Waxman, I want to ask you a little bit about life in the House. For your first 10 terms, the Democrats were the majority, then the Republicans took over. It swung back a couple of times since. How different is it to be a member of the House in the majority party and a member of the House, as you are now, in the minority?

WAXMAN: I've been in the House in the majority and in the minority, and I could tell you without question it's better to be in the majority.

SIEGEL: How much better?


WAXMAN: A lot better because you can initiate the agenda. You can focus on the issues that you want to highlight and try to rally support for legislation or at least hold hearings to focus attention on a problem, which that in and of itself helps resolve some of these problems that you bring out. So there are opportunities to work in the minority, and I've always seized them. But there are, of course, even more when you can say I want to talk about AIDS, I want to talk about climate change, or I want to see what we can do to make sure that children get health care. Those are issues that I've always fought for in the past and if you can call the hearings or focus the attention on it, you can move that agenda.

SIEGEL: Congressman Henry Waxman of California, thanks for talking with us.

WAXMAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Congressman Waxman, after 20 terms - 40 years - in the House of Representatives, will retire at the end of this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.