An Interview With Henry Waxman
Henry Waxman is considered by many friends and even more foes to be the most skilled legislator in Washington. When I talk to Democratic staffers about the major policy initiatives currently moving through Congress, they place many of their hopes in Waxman. When I talk to Republican staffers, Waxman is the vessel for many of their fears. And both sides have some reason for thinking this: As chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman has principle jurisdiction over health-care reform and climate change. Meanwhile, he's also just released a book chronicling his time in the House. I sat down with him yesterday to talk a bit about the book and get an insider's view on how, and whether, Congress works. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Let's start with the book. I've always wondered why legislators write these books. You win reelection with large numbers. You're busy. You don't seem interested in running for president in 2012. You chair an important committee. So why spend your time on this?
I was contacted by Jonathan Carp, the publisher of Twelve Company. He had seen an article in Time that called me the scariest guy in Washington and he was curious about that. So he called me about doing a book. And I liked the idea of doing a book. Of memorializing some of the contributions I've made as a member of Congress over the years. I feel strongly that government can play an important and powerful role in the lives of millions of people. And I think that a lot of the bills we've brought into law have been great successes. And too often, you don't hear about the successes, you only hear about the scandals.
I wrote the book with the help of Joshua Green, a superb writer. It sets out many anecdotes and behind-the-scenes information that people don't ordinarily hear about in books about how Congress works. They usually hear about a House subcommittee then a committee then the Senate then the Senate committee. They think about it in terms of little boxes. I try to portray the forces at play in dealing with legislation and how some things that were big battles at the time are now taken for granted.
It was a big battle to get food producers to put uniform labels advising people about calories and sodium and carbohydrates and other nutrients on food. But I think most people take it for granted that they can see those labels when they go into the store and use them to make their decisions. But the food producers said they were going to go bankrupt if they had to put these labels on, it would be such a burden, it would be excessive. Finally we got it passed. And I don't think most people give it a second thought today. It's just there.
I tell in my book about the fight to stop smoking in airlines. Congress passed it as an experiment on flights under two hours. And it only passed by a couple votes. It was hotly contested. People did not believe smokers would put up with that limit. They would riot. There would be chaos on the planes. And now I think most people recognize that it would be a bit barbaric to get on a plane and have to breathe in someone else's smoke the whole time. Not only that, but it's harmful to your health. So that's taken for granted now. But it was a huge fight.
I also talk about the Clean Air Act, which is the most successful environmental law on the books today. There was a huge fight over a one--year period to get that legislation enacted. But now people in the Northeastern parts of the United States that were seeing acid rain don't have that problem any more. And the cost turned out to be a tenth what they said it would be even though different industries argued that our economy would go to hell. Invariably they met their requirements, met them ahead of time, and met them at a fraction of the predicted costs. So we've had very successful laws. But very few people talk about government in those terms.
So I thought I would talk about them in this book. This book "The Waxman Report." Which is on sale at your local bookstore. And on Amazon.
I think if you asked people what the job of a congressman is, what sector they worked in, they would say "politics." They give speeches. They run for reelection. They talk on cable shows. They speak with newspaper reporters like me. And it seemed that the argument of the book is that the work is legislating. It is a skill and a craft with many different parts: Holding hearings and persuading the public and crafting legislation.
But we have a pretty negative attitude towards the professionalization of Congress. It's rhetorically effective to run for a congressional seat on the message that "I sell tires and have never been near Washington, and don't know anything about this stuff." That sort of purity supposedly makes you better at being a congressman. But this book argues that that's not really true: Good legislators can create good outcomes. And that's a skill you can develop over a number of years.
I proudly describe myself as a career politician. A career legislator. This is what I chose to do. I think it is noble and important. I have no apologies to make. I remember the term-limit trend, as if there's something wrong with wanting to make legislating your career.
I have also found that if you focus in on the issues and the policies you have a good chance to get them done. That's true whether you're a committee chairman or someone who just tries to engage in those issues. I often tell new members of Congress not to worry about their seniority status. Instead, master some policy. People will start deferring to you. And you can do that here. Being in Congress is like being in the greatest university in the world. There's not an expert in the world who won't share their expertise with you.
I like this idea that the wonks will inherit the earth. You don't generally hear anyone say that you can achieve change in Congress by understanding an issue and arguing it effectively. You talk in the book about your early efforts to learn health-care policy by subscribing to doctor's trade magazines and journals. So how specifically did that give you an advantage in the legislative process?
I think there's more to it than being a good debater or a policy wonk. It's also essential to understand the legislative process.
Then let's get into the process a bit. Earlier this year, you challenged Rep. John Dingell for chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. I imagine that wasn't an easy decision. How did you decide to do it?
That's not in the book. It may be in the sequel. But this year more than last year, after Barack Obama was elected president, I came to believe we had a unique historical opportunity to do some big things he came to do -- in particular, energy policy and health-care policy. There is a short opportunity to do those things, maybe just a year. And after that, it becomes more difficult. I determined that if we were going to be able to take advantage of the moment, the committee had a lot of work to do, and I determined I could do a better job of it.
Chairman Dingell took over in 1980. So it had been 28 years during which he'd been chairman or the ranking Democrat on the committee. He will go down in the record books as one of our great legislators. But I didn't think in this period of time he'd be the best at what we needed to do. So I put myself forward as a candidate. And it wasn't about being tired of waiting. I've waited for decades. I could continue. But I didn't want to lose these two years. It's a time that comes around once in a political lifetime. And I didn't want it to be lost. And I thought I could do a better job leading the committee on energy and health-care policy.
This wasn't the first time you'd done something like this. In the book, you talk about challenging a more senior member to lead a subcommittee when you'd only been in office a couple of years.
Well, it was an open chairmanship. It was the subcommittee on health and environment and it was chaired by Paul Rogers, who was an outstanding leader. He decided to quit. There were two senior Democrats to me who were possible candidates. One was a Southern Democrat who was for all practical purposes a Republican. The other candidate was a very distinguished former judge named Richardson Pryor. He had two problems, I thought. One, he had a personal fortune in some pharmaceutical committees, and our committee had jurisdiction from FDA issues. But I thought you couldn't recuse yourself totally if the FDA chairman knew the committee chairman over him had these personal interests. And even more important than that was that Pryor was from North Carolina, and so he thought cigarette smoke was not harmful. And I thought Congress needed to do something about that.
So I sought election to that post and won. I guess I'm willing to do what any politician is willing to do. If I see an opening, I run for it.
I think a fair number of people would say that both challenges were good decisions, or at least made sense from a certain perspective. But I think it's unlikely that the only committees with suboptimal chairmen are committees on which Henry Waxman sits. But challenges are very rare. So why is that?
The traditions of the House are pretty strong. And I have great respect for seniority. But I don't think it should be the sole determinant.
I recently read a book called "The Liberal Hour" about the Great Society. And the authors there made the point that one of the important underlying factors to Johnson's ability to move Civil Rights legislation and Medicare and Medicaid was a change House Speaker Sam Rayburn made to the Rules Committee when John F. Kennedy was president. He expanded it to give it a more liberal majority. And there have been a couple moments like this where legislative change is preceded by procedural change.
One of the things that brings up is that it's interesting how central the filibuster has become to not only how the Senate operates, but also how the House operates, as much of the legislating is done in recognition that it'll have to pass the Senate. As political scientists will tell you, of course, this centrality of the filibuster is actually a relatively recent innovation. So I'm curious how much you think it's actually possible to achieve these changes under the current system. Even with a popular new president and a large House majority and 60 Democrats in the Senate, it seems unlikely we'll actually solve these underlying problems. We might get legislation. But it's not likely to avert the existence-level fiscal threat from health-care reform or the existence level environmental threat from climate change. But if not now, then when? And if Congress can't respond to challenges of that magnitude, doesn't it suggest that something is quite wrong?
I think we need to be open-minded and think about the possibility in changes of process as well as policies. We shouldn't be so burdened by the past that we can't face the future. The seniority system in the House was traditionally dictated by members who didn't like the speaker having so much power over the committees. But when I came to Congress, if you were the senior member, you became chairman no matter how competent you were, no matter how in sync you were with the majority caucus. That was enormously advantageous for many of the Dixiecrats who remained Democrat for that reason, to take advantage of the seniority, but who aligned themselves on policy with the Republicans, and created a situation where even when Democrats had large margins, there was this sort of Southern Democrat-Republican coalition that ruled.
The fight by Sam Rayburn to allow the Rules Committee to be controlled by the leadership was an enormous and brutal fight, but a necessary one. The chairman before that time was Judge Smith from Virginia, who wouldn't let civil rights legislation go to the House floor because he was a segregationist himself. That meant that even when the Judiciary Committee proposed a bill for civil rights, members of the House couldn't vote on it.
There are anti-democratic rules that need to be changed. In some ways, the filibuster is an issue we might want to look at more closely. It is a two-edged sword. But I come from California, where to pass a budget you need a two-thirds vote. And they've been unable to pass a budget for years now able to deal with the fiscal problems. And it has thrown the state into chaos because they can't get the two-thirds vote.
The filibuster used to be a two-thirds requirement, and it wasn't until 1975 that they changed it to 60 votes. Well, that was a move in the right direction. For sure.
I wish it was true that the interview ended on that perfect closing line. And I could pretend it did. You'd never know! But there were a few more minutes that my recorder, sadly, did not have the battery life to preserve. In particular, Chairman Waxman offered one final, enthusiastic plug for his book, "The Waxman Report," and I will preserve the spirit of that exchange by offering one more link to its Amazon page.
Photo credit: Michael Robinson-Chavez.
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