Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer February 5

At first glance, the landmark legislation that Rep. Henry Waxman wrote and steered to enactment might seem little more than common sense. The Los Angeles Democrat, who announced last week that he’ll retire in December after 40 years in the House, was the primary force behind bills that made our air cleaner, made drinking water safer, put nutritional labeling on food, provided medical coverage to people with AIDS whose insurance didn’t cover that disease, gave rise to generic drugs, increased safety standards for food and enabled millions of poor children to have annual checkups.

Two memorable sets of hearings he convened reduced the clout of Big Tobacco in American life (and, ultimately, the number of Americans who smoke) and pushed baseball to get serious about banning steroids.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

Who could be against these things? Even in rabidly anti-government tea party circles, you don’t hear much about repealing standards for drinking water, scrapping generic drugs or eliminating nutritional labels on food. The Republican Party has enough troubles; becoming FODs (Friends of Disease) would be all it needs to chase away every conceivable swing voter.

Yet none of Waxman’s achievements came easy. To the contrary, Waxman is generally regarded as liberalism’s legislative genius of the past four decades because almost every one of his signature bills required him to build support over years and to devise all manner of innovative strategies to turn those bills into laws. He managed to expand the number of people eligible for Medicaid 24 times during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, chiefly by persuading some Republicans that poor children, not just children of welfare recipients, should be able to see doctors — and then including those expansions in annual omnibus budget appropriations that Reagan felt he couldn’t veto. Waxman raised auto emission standards by holding up passage of a watered-down Clean Air Act for nearly a decadeuntil he had the votes to strengthen it. (This involved ongoing showdowns with Democratic Rep. John Dingell, the Detroit congressman who led the House Energy and Commerce Committee. On one occasion, Waxman blocked the committee’s passage of a Dingell bill by introducing 600 amendments, which he wheeled into the committee room in shopping carts.)

Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans frequently ran the Senate, Waxman became known as the most tenacious negotiator in the bicameral conference committees that settled on legislation’s final language. As is well known, Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson once staggered out of an all-night negotiation and observed, “Henry Waxman is tougher than a boiled owl.” Less well known is that then-Majority Leader Robert Dole once warned his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor not to add any amendments to a particular bill, lest it be sent to conference and subjected to Waxman’s tenacity and wiles.

Waxman succeeded as a legislator because, like Lyndon Johnson, he understood power. Like Johnson, he donated his campaign funds, which he never really needed for his own reelection campaigns (his wealthy West L.A. district was both safely Democratic and a source of big contributions) to Democratic colleagues who did need them. In return, those colleagues backed his efforts to win subcommittee and then committee chairmanships, from which he was better able to steer his bills into law — even when that meant ousting incumbent Democratic chairmen.

Republicans have never felt notably fond of Waxman. When news of his retirement was announced at the House Republicans’ annual retreat last week, it reportedly was greeted with a standing ovation. That’s partly because Waxman has been an effective partisan warrior whose oversight hearings during George W. Bush’s presidency embarrassed the GOP, and partly because he played a major role in passing the Affordable Care Act. But on a deeper level, it’s hard to think of another legislator whose record more decisively consigned the Republican right’s favored ideology — libertarianism — to history’s dustbin.

After all, would a libertarian favor government regulations that cleaned the air? That made drinking water safer? That told people what was in their food? That entitled poor children to checkups? The libertarian position is that the market will take care of these things. Of course, the reason all those regulations became law was precisely because the market doesn’t take care of such things.

Waxman surely would have preferred not to have encountered the libertarian opposition his bills invariably aroused. But precisely because that happened, he ended up, however inadvertently, demonstrating that libertarians sometimes do end up as FODs. No wonder Republicans are relieved to see him go.

Read more from Harold Meyerson’s archive or follow him on Twitter.