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America's Watchdog


By Nicole Duran, Photos by Andrew Cutaro

Published Oct 1, 2010 9:30 AM

Tens of millions of Americans are healthier, breathe cleaner air and live safer lives because of the efforts of Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Even Republicans tip their hat to the power — and integrity — of the "Democrats' Eliot Ness."

Waxman explains his position in an interview with the BBC.

Plenty of politicians are described as "a driving force for change," and so is Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman '61, J.D. '64 on the jacket of his 2009 book, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works. But Waxman's got something most of the others do not: a real claim to that fame. Just read his clippings.

Post-Election Update: Waxman won re-election with 64% of the vote, but will no longer chair his committees after the Republican Congress takes office in January.

"In the altered landscape that is Washington, there's a new contender for the title of Scariest Guy in Town," trumpeted Time magazine about the California lawmaker. "He stands 5 feet 5, speaks softly and has all the panache of your parents' dentist. But when it comes to putting powerful people on the hot seat, there's no one tougher and more tenacious than veteran California Congressman Henry Waxman."

And the Christian Science Monitor called the indefatigable lawmaker an "impeccable interrogator" who put the watch in watchdog and toppled an intractable old bull on his way to becoming chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Moreover, Waxman did all of it without losing sight of the folks back home — Los Angeles' 30th Congressional District, which includes UCLA. And he knew he would do all of that — or something like it — before he even ran his first campaign.

Want to learn more about Henry Waxman? Check out Waxman's congressional page or these UCLA Newsroom stories.

"I was always interested in politics," Waxman says about a career spent almost exclusively in public office. "My family was interested in it. I followed it at a very young age. When I got to UCLA, I was quick to join the Young Democrats."

Even among Republicans, Waxman garners respect, no mean feat in a ferociously polarized Beltway culture. "He's very good at what he does; that's why you get a lot of Republicans who are not fond of him," says former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998-2002 and served with Waxman until retiring from Congress in 2008.

Former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyoming) once described Waxman as "tougher than a boiled owl." He has become known as the Hill's top investigator, dubbed by The Nation magazine as "the Democrats' Eliot Ness" — a moniker that has stuck and was on full view this summer, when he grilled and embarrassed BP executives over what they knew about the dangers of their drilling practices in the Gulf of Mexico prior to April's epic oil spill.

They never had a chance.

Speaking Truth to Power — and the People

Waxman first earned the "beware of watchdog" badge by taking down the major tobacco executives who in 1994 testified under oath, at his insistence, that nicotine was not addictive. Once the House Government Reform Committee became his territory in 1997, Republicans, now in the majority, rarely let him off his leash. Nonetheless, he spent eight years trying to submit the administration of President George W. Bush to vigorous congressional oversight. He launched investigations of White House ties to Enron, contract abuses in Iraq by Halliburton, among others, and fought to publicize the membership of then-Vice President Dick Cheney's 2001 energy task force.

"The Democrats' Eliot Ness" in his office on Capitol Hill.

Compared to those challenges, the BP executives were a light snack for the lawmaker. With his usual obsession for preparation and the collection of reams and reams of data, Waxman unearthed e-mails, studies and warnings from concerned employees within BP to outside contractors, including his old friend Halliburton, which ironically provided some of his most damning evidence. The BP hearings brought together two of Waxman's passions: holding people accountable and advocating for stronger environmental policies.

"Part of this reform must be legislation to put teeth into our regulatory system," Waxman said during the June hearing. "But part must also be a transition to a clean energy economy. We are addicted to oil and this addiction is fouling our beaches, polluting our atmosphere and undermining our national security. We can't snap our fingers and transform our energy economy overnight, but we need to start down the path to a clean energy future. If we don't, we will be confronted with an even worse spill 20 years from now."

Waxman's interest in environmental policy traces back to when he first came to Congress in 1975. He sat on Energy's Health and Environment Subcommittee for years and was its chairman for 16. He was a primary author of 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that tackled smog, toxic air pollution, acid rain and ozone layer damage. He also sponsored the 1986 and 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments, the 1996 Food Quality Act, the Radon Abatement Act and the Lead Contamination Control Act.



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