Monday, June 22, 2009

Backrounder: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Henry Waxman

Or, as Washington Monthly put it:

Marathon Man
Henry Waxman’s climate change bill won’t make it into law this year. That’s why he’s the right guy for the job.

...Waxman’s major accomplishments are often like this. His legislative campaigns unfold over spans of time beyond the patience of most lawmakers, and sometimes defy political gravity—in the 1980s, when anything smacking of Great Society liberalism was on the chopping block, Waxman managed to expand the Medicaid program twenty-four times. It is not unusual for him to spend a decade or longer advancing a single policy goal in tiny pieces, forging unusual alliances as he needs them, or simply outlasting his opponents. "It’s the Ho Chi Minh approach," a despairing Republican staffer on Waxman’s committee once told National Review. "If [victory’s] not in the first year, it’s in the fifth."

This year, at age sixty-nine, Waxman has the wind fully at his back for the first time since his early days in Congress a third of a century ago. In November, he won a secret-ballot election for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, narrowly unseating Michigan Representative John Dingell, the eighty-two-year-old lion of the House who had held the post in every Democratic Congress since 1981. It is traditionally the third most powerful position in the House—during Dingell’s tenure, 40 percent of House bills crossed his desk—and, with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel hamstrung by a real estate scandal, it is now arguably second only in policymaking influence to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Waxman is also exceptionally well wired to the executive branch. Philip Schiliro, who served as Waxman’s chief of staff and virtual alter ego for more than twenty years, is now President Obama’s congressional liaison, the aide most directly in charge of shepherding the president’s agenda through Congress. Obama has also tapped former Waxman staffers for important deputy-level positions at the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as lower-ranking jobs elsewhere. This is no small thing: lawmakers and presidents alike struggle to get actionable intelligence from inside federal agencies, which in turn zealously guard it to preserve a measure of autonomy. Vice President Dick Cheney made himself immensely powerful in part by placing loyalists in key positions throughout the bureaucracy. Waxman’s ears are closer to the ground than those of just about anyone else in Congress.

For the rest of this year, Waxman’s agenda includes launching most of the Democrats’ biggest-ticket policy items. He is one of three chairmen crafting a health care reform bill this summer. If that effort is ambitious, the project consuming his time between now and then is even more so: along with his lieutenant, Heath and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Waxman is the principal architect of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the first serious attempt by Congress to tackle climate change. Drafts of the bill include everything from money for electric cars to new requirements for lightbulb manufacturers, but the heart of the proposed law is a cap-and-trade program which, if properly executed, would cut greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020. Although the legislation’s ultimate fate rests in the Senate—specifically, in the hands of skittish Democrats from the Rust Belt and Appalachia—Waxman’s bill will set the terms of the debate and serve as the template for the Senate’s legislation. If it passes, it will mark the beginning of the most dramatic transformation of the domestic policy landscape since the passage of Social Security.

Still, despite such ambitions, the White House faces numerous competing priorities, and climate change legislation is not first among them. (This year, the big push will be for health care reform.) "I think Chairman Waxman is fighting an uphill battle," says Steven Biel, U.S. climate campaign director for Greenpeace. "He’s in a position where he has to make up for a decade of not just lost policy opportunities, but of just not discussing in an informed, grown-up way the energy choices we face."

If that’s the bad news, the good news is that this is the kind of uphill battle that Waxman has long specialized in fighting. What Waxman and the 136 other Democrats who voted for him in his chairman race were doing, in effect, was betting that climate change is a Henry Waxman Issue: a policy shift that seems immensely unlikely at first but, ultimately, becomes almost inevitable. Those shifts do not always happen in a year. But they do happen. And the arc of Waxman’s career shows how.

The first thing you notice about Henry Waxman when he appears in the doorway of his Capitol Hill office is how little of it he occupies. At a height of five feet five inches, Waxman is one of Washington’s better sight gags; his fearsome reputation on the Hill (in 2006, Time called Waxman "The Scariest Guy in Town") is sharply at odds with his stature and appearance. His close-trimmed mustache is bracketed by a pair of upturned nostrils and a mouth that oscillates between a rictus of concerned contemplation and a broad toothy grin, the whole package framed by his bald pate and generous ears. Hanging above the receptionist’s desk in his office is a framed Rolling Stone illustration that depicts him as a snarling attack dog nipping at the heels of Bush, Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice. It looks like a breed of attack dog you could fit in a purse....MUCH MORE