Waxman: Democrats' Eliot Ness | The Nation


Waxman: Democrats' Eliot Ness

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It's nothing new, says Representative Henry Waxman. For decades--literally--this Democrat from the Westside of Los Angeles has mounted high-profile investigations and hearings while churning out sharp-edged reports: on toxic emissions, the tobacco industry, pesticides in drinking water. But during George W. Bush's first term as President, Waxman, the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, established himself as the Democrats' chief pursuer of purported wrongdoing within the Bush Administration. He has mounted a series of "special investigations"--of Halliburton, Enron, the flu vaccine crisis, conflicts of interest at the Department of Homeland Security, national missile defense. He has produced reports on secrecy in the Bush Administration, misleading prewar assertions made by Bush officials about Iraq's WMDs, Bush's politicization of science. And he has won considerable media attention for his efforts. Working with Representative John Dingell, he sicced the Government Accountability Office on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force to get the names of the industry executives who helped cook up Cheney's energy plan. (Cheney told the GAO to take a hike; the GAO filed suit, lost and then declined to appeal.) More recently, Waxman released a headlines-grabbing report revealing that federally funded abstinence-only sex-ed programs peddle false information to teens. (One claimed condom use does not prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.) With all this muckraking, the 65-year-old Waxman has become the Eliot Ness of the Democrats.

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David Corn
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"Waxman has been important for House Democrats," says Representative Jim McGovern, a liberal from Massachusetts. "With the Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, it's hard to be heard. He's found ways to get our message out." Representative George Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education Committee, notes, "He's developed the model. It's what we would like every ranking member to do--to ask questions, be persistent and not accept silence. He's motivated other Democrats and has even created some discontent within the Democratic caucus because newer members on other committees sometimes don't think the ranking members are aggressive enough." And on the Senate side, Democrats--perhaps encouraged by Waxman's example--have announced they will create their own investigative team and conduct unofficial hearings on alleged Bush Administration wrongdoing.

The snub-nosed, bespectacled, balding and far-from-tall Waxman is not flamboyant or flashy. He speaks softly but directly and has a forceful manner. His Democratic colleagues routinely joke about his persistence and tenacity. "Don't get into an argument with Henry," says Miller. "But if you do, bring your lunch. He won't let you go."

Waxman grew up in an apartment over a Watts grocery store run by his father, the son of Russian immigrants. In 1968, at the age of 28, Waxman, a leader of Young Democrats, defeated an incumbent Democratic assemblyman. Six years later he was elected to the House from a new district that included West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. His is one of the most wealthy, most Democratic and most liberal districts in the nation. Waxman, appropriately enough, is a stalwart liberal (and an ardent Israel supporter), but he is glitz-free. He has never attended the Oscars. He and his wife, Janet, keep kosher.

It's not as if Waxman set out specifically to establish an anti-Bush task force after the 2000 election. "Doing reports, conducting oversight--it's what he has always done," says Phil Schiliro, who has worked for Waxman since 1982 (with the exception of one year). Through most of Waxman's first twenty years in Congress, he chaired the influential Health and Environment Subcommittee and mainly focused on legislation--Medicaid expansion, the clean-air law, AIDS, tobacco--winning a description in The Almanac of American Politics as "a skilled and idealistic policy entrepreneur." During those years, Waxman says, producing reports was primarily a device for drawing attention to an issue and building a case for legislation. For instance, after the 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, he and his staff, realizing that toxic air pollutants were unregulated in the United States, investigated the pollution from chemical plants in Kanawha Valley, West Virginia. The resulting report concluded that the valley was being exposed to high amounts of toxic emissions. With that report in hand, Waxman pushed through legislation that required the Environmental Protection Agency to collect more data on emissions. He then used the information gathered to win passage in 1990 of a measure that reduced toxic air pollution.

When Republicans booted the Democrats out of the majority in 1994, Waxman lost control of the subcommittee and his investigative staff. But he soon had another. In 1997 he became the ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, which, as Waxman notes, has "oversight and investigative jurisdiction over everything." (Technically, the committee is supposed to ascertain that the federal government is functioning well.) At the time, the committee was primarily engaged in anti-Clinton investigations launched by then-chairman Dan Burton. The House leadership, eager to see Burton chasing after the Clintons on the Whitewater and campaign finance scandals, gladly said yes to Burton's request for more staff. Under House rules, Waxman was entitled to a third of the resources for his minority staff. This allowed him to build a team of Democratic investigators.

Initially Waxman's minority staff mostly contended with Burton's pursuit of Clinton wrongdoing (real and imagined). But in the Bush years--with the Republican majority of the committee not so keen on oversight aimed at the current Administration--Waxman's investigators have had more opportunity to set their own course. Waxman cannot hold official hearings or issue subpoenas, but he is able to request information (even if frequently the Administration tells him to get lost). Moreover, the committee has what's called the "seven-member rule," under which executive agencies have to comply with an information request from seven of the committee's members. Since there are twenty Democrats on the committee, Waxman would have little trouble enlisting enough supporters for almost any request, but he has been hesitant to invoke this law often. When he has--to obtain census data and suppressed cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation--the Bush Administration has refused to cooperate, forcing Waxman to file lawsuits. The main case involving the seven-member rule is still before a federal court.

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