The Westside elder statesman on why he’s leaving Congress, how to fix Washington and taking a parting shot at global warming
Henry Waxman has had enough.
After representing Westside communities in the House of Representatives for 40 years, the 74-year-old Beverly Hills Democrat announced last week that he would not seek reelection in November.
Waxman’s retirement announcement caused a seismic shift in the political landscape of Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica and has opened an electoral window for a number of candidates seeking to replace him at the head of one of the nation’s wealthiest congressional districts.
The aftershock was felt nationwide: Waxman became one of the most influential members in Congress by spearheading legislation of national interest — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Clean Air Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Ryan White Care Act among them — while at various times leading the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee and its Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He’s also pushed for global warming regulations and opposed the weakening of Food and Drug Administration controls.
A co-founder of the Los Angeles County Young Democrats, the Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate began his political career in the California Assembly in 1969 and served three terms before his election to Congress in 1975.
But in all those years, never has political intransigence been so steadfast as in today’s Congress, he said, blaming his Tea Party colleagues across the aisle.
— Gary Walker
How much was the Tea Party and Washington gridlock a factor in your decision to retire?
I am very disappointed that there is so much extremism coming from the Tea Party. They are obstructionists because they feel that compromise is a dirty word. I am embarrassed that the greatest legislative body in the world too often operates in a partisan intellectual vacuum, denying science, refusing to listen to experts and ignoring facts.
But I am not leaving out of frustration with Congress. My primary motivation was that I think it’s time for someone new, with fresh ideas. I would also like to say that I am not leaving because I think House Democrats have no chance to retake the House. In fact, I think Democrats can take back the House this fall.
I still feel youthful and energetic, but I recognize that if I want to experience a life outside of Congress, I need to start soon.
What are you hearing from colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are also leaving Congress?
Different people have different reasons for leaving. Reps. George Miller and Tom Harkin and Sen. Max Baucus are from my class — 1975. It’s a generational change. But hopefully we’ll see some new faces with new ideas, and that’s what we need in Congress.
Is there any hope that the gridlock will end at some point?
I think so. The Republicans are in a civil war right now. And the few moderate Republicans are frustrated that the Tea Party extremists just want to say ‘no’ to everything. If they continue down this path, the Republicans will become an extinct party. They’ll be able to compete regionally, but not as a national party.
How did Washington become a place where moderation is no longer welcome?
I think it began several years ago, the lack of civility that started to become the norm. But even with this Congress some of us have been able to work in a bipartisan manner. Last Congress, I worked with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate to pass legislation that will ease the nation’s growing spectrum shortage, spur innovation in new ‘Super Wi-Fi’ technologies, and create a national broadband network for first responders. And just last year, I worked on a bipartisan basis to enact legislation strengthening [Federal Drug Administration’s] authority to stop dangerous drug compounding and to track pharmaceuticals through the supply chain.
How would you answer critics of the Affordable Care Act?
I think it will be looked at as very important, landmark legislation. I think it will be evolving over time, but I think it will continue to be a great benefit to the American people. One of the problems in our deficit is the growing cost of Medicare and the Affordable Care Act will reduce Medicare spending. When Social Security was rolled out, it faced similar criticism, as did Medicare. And as we know, both of these programs are very popular with the public, especially with seniors.
Have you given any thought to endorsing anyone for your seat?
It’s a little premature for that at the moment. I hope there will be people who want to follow in my footsteps in the bipartisan tradition.
What do you think is going to be your enduring legacy in Washington?
Many of the bills that I have sponsored have involved fighting over a long period of time. They weren’t always easy. The Clean Air Act, my work on food safety laws, on tobacco legislation, on HIV and AIDS, on pesticides and on the Affordable Care Act have all been things that I am very proud to have written. I chaired hearings on the tobacco industry in the 1990s, when some people thought they would not lead to anything, and after more than a decade President Obama signed my legislation into law. So sometimes holding hearings is an important part of the legislative process.
What should voters be looking for in their next representative?
A representative who will pay attention to the diverse constituencies that we have in the 33rd District. We have a very robust entertainment industry, an aerospace industry that is crucial to the region and two airports. We have a large coastal area, so protecting our beaches in essential. We also need someone who will not only be able to represent the district as a national figure, but as an international figure as well.
What will be the focus of your last 11 months in Congress?
Helping the administration to stop greenhouse gases, which is something that I have been trying to do for a long time. In 2009, I worked with then-Rep. Edward Markey to pass the Waxman-Markey climate change bill in the House [it stalled in the Senate]. The president himself can take action, but I will be doing what I can to help him. We have too many people in Congress that continue to deny climate change. So that, as well as trying to make sure that we continue to protect Medicare and Social Security, is what my focus will be.
I have had a long career and an eventful one — and I wouldn’t trade any of it.