By Robert G. Kaiser
Sunday, July 5, 2009
THE WAXMAN REPORT
How Congress Really Works
By Henry Waxman with Joshua Green
Twelve. 235 pp. $24.99
Henry Waxman is to Congress what Ted Williams was to baseball -- a natural. As you read this nicely proportioned, fast- paced book, you realize that Waxman was born to be a member of the House, ideally the chairman of an important committee. He's just five-feet-five, he's woefully short of hair, he's neither charming nor funny, but none of that has mattered. Waxman has been one of the most effective members of Congress for 35 years.
Part of being a natural in Congress is owning a healthy ego. Ego can be the fuel on which the legislative branch runs, and Waxman is in no danger of running out of gas. He makes this clear in the first pages of his book, ably co-authored by Joshua Green, a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly: "Nearly every worthwhile fight in my career began with my being badly outmatched," Waxman confides. "The other guys always have more money. That's why Congress is so important. Run as it should be, it ensures that no special interest can ever be powerful enough to eclipse the public interest."
This is the voice of David, whose career has featured the slaying of one Goliath after another. That is the theme of this book, which in fact does not explain "how Congress really works," but rather tells engaging stories about how Henry Waxman has made Congress work, sometimes, for the causes he has embraced. Of course, Congress has seldom ensured that the public interest prevails over special interests -- quite the opposite. But Waxman has indeed been responsible for some important moments when a version of the public interest did prevail.
In these pages Waxman teaches the importance of good staff work, patience and the willingness to make unexpected alliances to advance your causes. He believes in oversight hearings, Congress's most basic tool, but one that has fallen into disrepair through disuse. He begins and almost ends the book with what must have been his favorite hearing of all time, one he held on April 14, 1994, just months before he and his Democratic colleagues would pass into the minority in the House, a kind of purgatory for an activist like Waxman.
On that occasion Waxman presided over the self-immolation of the seven chief executives of America's biggest tobacco companies, who, despite mountains of compelling evidence to the contrary, testified clumsily and unpersuasively, under oath, that they never believed smoking cigarettes was addictive. This hearing generated no immediate legislation, but it helped destroy the reputation of American tobacco companies and surely contributed to the environment that produced any number of new controls on smoking and the mammoth tobacco settlement with the states in the years that followed.
Waxman's personal accomplishments are impressive. With symbolic support from Ryan White, a 13-year-old who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, Waxman pushed federal aid for victims of the disease through Congress, over ferocious, homophobic opposition from conservative members. His legislation banned smoking on airplanes; his bill forced food manufacturers to list ingredients on processed foods. He managed to push pesticide legislation through the Congress when it was controlled by anti-regulatory Republicans. On all of these occasions he built alliances, often bi-partisan alliances, that made victory possible.
Waxman sees his victories as evidence that Congress is a force for good, but he refuses to acknowledge the role of Congress in undermining its own standing in the country. Instead, he blames "Watergate and the Vietnam War" for producing "such widespread disillusionment with government that the American people eventually lost faith in the Congress as well."
But the corruption of Congress, the corrosive influence of money and lobbying and the failure of one Congress after another to address the country's biggest problems have done much more to undermine the reputation of our legislative branch than Watergate and Vietnam. To his credit, as the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman is currently addressing one of the nation's most complex crises: climate change.
"The Waxman Report" explains, at least, how Congress can work, and it is fun to read. You finish it with gratitude to the voters of Beverly Hills and nearby areas who keep returning this ornery fellow to the House to challenge entrenched special interests. More Henry Waxmans on both sides of the aisle would give us a much better Congress than the one we've got.
Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Post, is the author of "So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government."