Rep. Henry A. Waxman is a Democrat from California.
I announced this past week that I will be retiring after having the honor of serving my Los Angeles constituents in Congress for 40 years.
Immediately, speculation began that I am leaving because I am frustrated with a broken institution. But the exact opposite is true: I am leaving Congress with my conviction intact that the legislative branch can be a powerful force for good.
Of course there are aspects of the current Congress that I abhor. This past week, every Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where I have served most of my career, voted to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon pollution that is causing climate change. When my colleague Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) offered a simple amendment affirming that climate change is real, they voted against that, too.
That kind of mindless denial of science is an embarrassment.
Voting over and over to repeal the Affordable Care Act, shutting down the government and threatening default are other deplorable examples of the extremism of tea party Republicans.
But even in this polarized environment, there are important opportunities to advance the public interest. Two years ago, I worked with Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and our Senate colleagues to write a landmark telecommunications law that will ease the looming shortage of wireless spectrum, create new Super WiFi technologies and fund the long-overdue construction of a nationwide broadband network for police and firefighters. Last year, we negotiated a law that will create an electronic tracking system to protect consumers from counterfeit drugs. And even now, I am working with a bipartisan group from the House and the Senate to fix the Medicare physician payment system that has bedeviled Congress for more than a decade.
These efforts may not garner headlines, but they make our country stronger and are deeply gratifying.
No question, it is hard to pass legislation in today’s Congress. But it has always been hard. Our system of checks and balances makes it simpler to stop bills than to enact them.
In fact, the story of my career is that Congress can do tremendous good, but it never comes easily.
For example, my fight to pass the 1990 Clean Air Act, perhaps the most effective environmental law ever written, lasted nearly a decade.
It was 15 years from the day the tobacco chief executives denied to my subcommittee that nicotine was addictive to the day President Obama signed a law prohibiting cigarettes from being marketed to children and giving the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over tobacco products.
I had to hold 30 hearings from 1982 to 1990 to draw enough public attention to HIV-AIDS to enact the law that finally recognized that the disease existed and provided care to those afflicted.
People now take generic drugs and nutrition labels on foods for granted, but the laws creating them weren’t easy fights, either.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, I wrote 24 laws that expanded Medicaid coverage one small step at a time: to children of the working poor, to low-income women experiencing their first pregnancy, to parents transitioning to work. I worked with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to enact the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, another major step forward. But it wasn’t until 2010 — my 36th year in Congress — that my dream of affordable heath insurance coverage for all was finally enacted into law.
I didn’t always succeed. In 2009, I joined with now-Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) to pass legislation in the House to address climate change, but it did not move in the Senate. With Congress showing no leadership, I am now focused on building support for administrative action by Obama, who can use the authorities of the Clean Air Act to tackle this threat to our future.
At key moments in my career, I have forged some remarkable partnerships that I will always cherish: with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) to pass the generic-drug law; with senior House Republicans such as Henry J. Hyde (Ill.), Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (Va.) and Tom Davis (Va.) to pass laws on prenatal care, safe drinking water and pesticide residues on food, and procurement reform; and with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and President George H.W. Bush on the Clean Air Act and auto standards.
My legislative class of 1974 reformed Congress and brought new energy to the institution. Some say my departure and the retirement of three of my friends and legendary classmates — Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Max Baucus (Mont.), all Democrats — signal that Congress is irretrievably broken.
I can’t speak for my colleagues, but that’s not how I feel. All my career I’ve wanted more progress more quickly than the process allows, but that has always invigorated me, not discouraged me — and it still does. My reason for leaving is simple: Forty years is a long time, far longer than I ever expected to serve. It’s time for me to give someone else a chance, ideally someone young enough to make the same long-term commitment required for real legislative success.
I hope the lesson that the next generation of lawmakers will draw from my experiences is not cynicism about the legislative process, but optimism that progress is always possible with persistence and determination. Enacting laws that make America a better nation has never been easy. It won’t be easy in the future, but it will always be worth the fight.