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America's Watchdog


By Nicole Duran, Photos by Andrew Cutaro

Published Oct 1, 2010 9:30 AM

Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, projected on a television screen on Capitol Hill during hearings with oil executives about off-shore drilling.

Passion, Party and Power

Waxman is an unapologetic liberal who readily admits his left-leaning district affords him a luxury few lawmakers enjoy. "I have a secure Democratic district, which has given me the ability to focus on national and international issues which, I think, is what my constituents want me to do," he says. "I always have to evaluate, as a representative, the views of my constituents, but I've always thought my job is to make a decision — an informed decision — as to how to vote because opinion polls don't reflect the information that I have available to me."

Waxman's political views were clearly influenced by his parents, as he told Scripps Howard in a 2007 interview: "Franklin Roosevelt was revered in our home, as was President Truman." And he clearly favors Roosevelt's activist approach, telling the Washington Times in 2008, "I know some people don't, but I believe in government. I believe government can make a big difference in people's lives."

Starting, of course, with the good citizens of the 30th Congressional District. For instance, Waxman says he had Los Angeles' notorious smog in mind when he went to work on environmental issues. And both he and his staff are quick to rattle off statistics to back up their claims. For example, in 1984, West Los Angeles exceeded the ozone standard 55 days out of the year, according to the California Air Resources Board website. In 2008, it exceeded the standard only eight times.

With his antenna already tuned to eco-issues, Waxman's focus was turning to climate change legislation even before the BP spill. "Our committee has passed a bill to transform our energy system to make us less dependent on foreign oil, which I think is a national security issue as well as an energy issue," he explains. "We also have as our objective to create new jobs as we reduce the carbon pollution from the use of energy, both on the electricity and transportation sides. Scientists are even telling us that if we don't act and make reductions in the carbon emissions, we may find ourselves facing tipping points that will cause damage that will be irreparable."

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

But even Eliot Ness had to pay his dues. And as a junior member in the '80s, Waxman frequently tangled with Energy and Commerce's previous Democratic chairman, the imposing John Dingell of Michigan. Dingell is famous for doing whatever it takes to "protect" the U.S. auto industry, even if that means teaming up with a Republican president, as Dingell did when President Ronald Reagan took office. Waxman recounts his first showdown with Dingell in his book, describing it as a classic David vs. Goliath battle. Though Dingell had the advantage of seniority, the chairman's gavel and an awesome coalition of business interests behind him, Waxman and his small group of allies outmaneuvered the veteran power player. That episode, which Waxman likened to being "confronted by a steamroller," was just a prelude: Two decades later, Waxman wrested the Energy and Commerce chairmanship from Dingell.

"I challenged the sitting chairman to take over the job because I saw the unique, historical opportunity that may come only once in a lifetime," Waxman says about that November 2008 coup. "A new president was pressing for big change and such actions really have to happen early on in such an administration."

Still, Waxman can be a gracious crusader, at least with colleagues, and he says of Dingell, "I have such high admiration and respect for him. I told him, 'To me you will always be what the model of a committee chairman should be like.' But he'd been chairman or ranking member for 28 years and was in his 80s; I just thought that at this particular moment I really could do the job that needed to be done."

The power player also can be generous. He convinced three other committee chairmen to put Dingell's name first on the historic health-care legislation the House passed earlier this year. It was a gentlemanly gesture, considering Dingell's personal history with the issue. The very first national health-care bill was co-authored by Dingell's father decades ago — and his son has reintroduced a national health insurance bill at the start of every new Congress since assuming Dingell the Elder's seat upon his father's death in 1955.

"[Waxman's] never going to embarrass anyone with what he does," says former GOP lawmaker Davis. "In all my dealings with Henry, it was never about him; it was always about the issues and the people he represents."