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Waxman: Democrats' Eliot Ness | The Nation

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Waxman: Democrats' Eliot Ness

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But Waxman has not needed this rule to conduct inquiries and win headlines. For example, after the State Department released an annual terrorism report last year declaring that international terrorism was on the decline, Waxman's staff, picking up on news accounts showing the report was inaccurate, questioned the State Department about the production of the document. Waxman then pressed the department to provide the full data. A month later, it released a revised version reporting that significant terrorism acts were actually at a twenty-year high. In other instances, his investigators do original work. They made front-page news with the sexual-abstinence report. In September Waxman joined with several Democratic senators to hold unofficial hearings on contracting in Iraq, during which witnesses disclosed new allegations of Halliburton abuses.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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His anti-Bush efforts--and those of all Democrats--did fall short on election day. But Waxman points to some small victories: exposing political manipulation of a Health and Human Services report on ethnic and racial disparities in healthcare, and pressuring the Pentagon to kill a fuel contract with Halliburton. Last year Scientific American noted that "until recently, many scientists who complained [about Bush's politicization of science] in private held their tongues in public. Waxman has given scientists' fears a voice, and a growing crowd of scientific organizations, advocacy groups and former officials are adding to the chorus." Waxman's staff has also produced reports tailored for the districts of his Democratic colleagues. One study assembled information on the high cost of prescription drugs in specific districts, enabling Democratic members from these areas to use the reports to garner media attention at home. That's one reason Waxman is generally popular among House Democrats. He is also appreciated by his colleagues for being a prolific fundraiser who supports other Democrats. And his ambitions do not threaten fellow House members. "One of his luxuries," says Schiliro, "is that he doesn't want to run for anything else. That's enormously liberating."

Working with other Democrats, Waxman notes, has not always been easy. Through the 1980s, he engaged in a now-legendary clash with John Dingell, then the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a protector of the auto industry, over clean-air legislation. Finally, the two hammered out a deal that led to the 1990 Clean Air Act. In 2003 Waxman proposed setting up an independent commission to investigate Bush's use--or abuse--of the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. But senior Democrats who deal with intelligence issues would not join him. "More and more," he says, "I am happy to do things on my own."

Waxman has been characterized by the right-wing media as a partisan hack only interested in nipping at Bush's heels. But with no opportunity to legislate, there's little alternative for him but to focus on oversight. And Waxman has not always acted as a partisan pitbull. In the mid-1990s he spent two years privately concocting a tobacco bill with Republican Representative Thomas Bliley, a champion of the tobacco industry. The two reached a compromise, Waxman says, but the GOP House leadership rejected the measure. During the Clinton campaign finance scandal, Waxman called for Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel. "We were not happy with that," says one former Clinton White House aide. Later Waxman assailed Clinton for pardoning fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Waxman did vote to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq. He now says, "If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for it." He points out that two days before the invasion he sent a letter to Bush noting that Bush's use of the unproven allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa was an act of "knowing deception or unfathomable incompetence" that undermined Bush's case for war. Waxman was on to the Niger story months before it became big news, but his charge that Bush had peddled misinformation--or disinformation--received little notice in the United States.

Waxman has a safe seat; he handily wins re-election. His anti-Bush endeavors play well in Hollywood. Without having to fret about re-election, he can afford to exercise what Schiliro cites as one of his chief assets: patience. "He doesn't mind spending eight years working on an issue," Schiliro says. "He passed AIDS and clean-air legislation, and that took years." And that may be why, when I ask Waxman if he will be able to remain motivated for another four years of Bush battles, he simply shrugs his shoulders. With four more Bush years to come, Waxman says, he expects to stay the course: more investigations, more reports. On what he's not sure, but he does say he anticipates continuing his probes of government contracting. "I hope we can investigate this with the Republicans," he comments. "This isn't partisan; it involves protecting taxpayer dollars. And there's been a clear failure of oversight by the Republicans. If they won't join us, then we'll just have to get the information out to the public." But, he adds, "it's hard for the Democrats to be as mean and tough as the House Republican leadership."

While lamenting the decline of Congressional oversight and pondering the work to be done in Bush's second term, Waxman recalls a recent meeting he had with a member of the Israeli Knesset. The legislator had mentioned he was in charge of the committee that handles oversight. But how could this be, Waxman asked him, since he was in the opposition? The Israeli explained that in Israel the committee that oversees the national government is traditionally chaired by a member of the opposition. After recounting this conversation, Waxman pauses for a moment, then wistfully says, "It's an interesting idea."

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