Veteran Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., whose 40 years in the House produced some of the most important legislation of the era, said Thursday that he would retire at the end of the year.
Waxman, 74, joins a growing list of House members who are calling it quits, many in disappointment over the partisanship and ineffectiveness of a Congress that may end up as the least productive in history.
“It’s been frustrating because of the extremism of tea-party Republicans,” Waxman said in an interview Wednesday. “Nothing seems to be happening.”
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The frustration is felt on both sides. More than 30 House members have said that they will retire, resign or run for other offices this year, including stalwarts such as George Miller, D-Calif.; Tom Latham, R-Iowa; Frank Wolf, R-Va.; and Howard McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Waxman’s departure after 20 terms in the House will be particularly poignant. One of his most notable accomplishments, the Affordable Care Act, which he was instrumental in writing, is shaping up as the centerpiece of campaigns all over the country, not as a triumph but as a Republican cudgel. And the expansion of Medicaid that he has championed has been challenged in a number of states run by Republican governors.
He has been unapologetic about the health-care law during its troubled rollout and he said he was confident it would survive and that its use as a political weapon would diminish.
“I’m proud of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “I think it’s a terrific piece of legislation.”
The bill to combat climate change that he wrote was passed by the House in 2009 but died in the Senate, and President Obama has given up on efforts to push it through. Waxman, whose 33rd Congressional District hugs the Southern California coast and includes Malibu, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, has also spent years trying to strengthen the powers of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but those efforts are under fire from the Republicans who control the House.
Still, Waxman will leave behind a legacy of entrenched accomplishments, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which extends coverage to millions of low-income children; anti-tobacco, food-safety and food-labeling laws; and the Ryan White Care Act, which allocates billions of dollars in federal money for the treatment of HIV and AIDS.
He is also credited with having laid the foundation for many of the executive actions that Obama, during his State of the Union address Tuesday, pledged to pursue. One involves the Clean Air Act, which Waxman helped write and which gives the EPA the authority it is exercising to regulate power-plant emissions of greenhouse gases. Waxman saw to it that the bill would allow the president, on his own, to order improvements in automobile fuel efficiency and other energy saving efforts.
Wendy Greuel, former Los Angeles city controller, told KPCC radio Thursday that she would run for Waxman’s seat. Another possible contender is Sandra Fluke, the former Georgetown University law student who testified to congressional Democrats that she wanted her college health plan to cover her birth control. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh branded her a “slut,” but later apologized.
On Thursday Fluke said she was “strongly considering running” for the seat.
Democratic state Sen. Ted Lieu said on his Facebook page he, too, was “seriously looking at running” and would make an announcement Friday.
Two political independents also stated their plans to run: Brent Roske, a television producer and director, and Marianne Williamson, the author of several self-help books.
“A great loss”
As a savvy insider, Waxman helped pioneer fundraising as a career tool. And as one of the few surviving members of the House of Representatives’ post-Watergate class of 1974, he has a rare ability to cut a deal and craft a liberal message.
“I first ran for office because I believe government can be a force for good in people’s lives,” Waxman said Thursday. “I have held this view throughout my career in Congress. And I will leave the House of Representatives with my conviction intact.”
“He has an unequaled record of achievement on so many areas of public policy, particularly health, environmental and consumer issues,” his former Los Angeles-area colleague Howard Berman said in an interview Thursday, calling Waxman’s departure a “great loss for the country and California.”
Berman, who lost his own long-held House seat in a 2012 Democratic primary, had worked closely with Waxman since their days at UCLA and UCLA Law School in the early 1960s. For many years, they and Berman’s brother Michael, a behind-the-scenes political operator, led what became known as the “Waxman-Berman machine.” The allies used fundraising, endorsements and redistricting, all the tools of the trade.
In Waxman, the nitty-gritty, and occasional hardball, coincided with a long track record of serious legislating.
“I always thought that he was a political animal, but also a person of high integrity,” said former Fresno, Calif.-area Rep. John Krebs, a Democrat who was elected to the House the same year as Waxman. “I never had the feeling that he was, quote, selling out. He had his principles, and he followed them.”
The pragmatic and the idealistic came together on certain key occasions, as in a hard-fought 1989 deal that Waxman struck with Michigan Democrat John Dingell to update the Clean Air Act.
The longtime adversaries hammered out a compromise on controlling so-called mobile source pollution — emitted from motor vehicles and airplanes — with Waxman securing tighter tailpipe-emission standards that effectively matched those already in place in California. The provisions, and others, became the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
The historic clean-air compromise, though, wasn’t a permanent peace treaty. Some 18 years later, Waxman toppled the then-82-year-old Dingell to claim the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, traditionally one of the most powerful in the House.
“Henry will leave behind a legacy as an extraordinary public servant and one of the most accomplished legislators of his or any era,” President Obama said Thursday.
Waxman had previously chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he held the Bush administration’s feet to the fire.
The president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Frances Beinecke, said Waxman had been a “stalwart champion” of the environment and public health, while Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of his home state called him “among the most special people I have ever known.”
Capitol Hill ladder
Only four members of the 435-member House have served longer than Waxman or Miller, who took their initial oaths of office Jan. 3, 1975.
Adroitly, though not without controversy, Waxman deployed political donations to climb the Capitol Hill ladder. Though so-called leadership political-action committees (PAC) are now commonplace in Congress, they were essentially unheard-of in 1978, when Waxman began spreading donations among fellow members of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
At the time, he was a 39-year-old sophomore lawmaker who was trying to beat a 59-year-old combat veteran and fifth-term House member from North Carolina named Richardson Preyer for the chairmanship of what was then the Health and Environment Subcommittee. With the help of his contributions, Waxman won the post, which he later used in rewriting the Clean Air Act.
What Waxman helped begin politically has since metastasized.
During the 2012 election cycle, some 450 congressional leadership PACs contributed a total of $46.4 million to federal candidates, according to data compiled from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance watchdog group. Waxman himself spent $2.6 million in his own 2012 campaign, a close race in which he topped independent candidate Bill Bloomfield 54 to 46 percent.
“I have learned that progress is not always easy,” Waxman said. “It can take years of dedication and struggle. But it’s worth fighting for.”
Material from The Associated Press
is included in this report.