Politics & Policy

Waxing and Whining

Congressman Henry Waxman attempts to defend the role of an expansive government.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) is about as able a legislator as exists in the current goat rodeo cum Democratic Congress, so if Waxman wrote a book explaining how Congress really works, it would be worth taking a look at.

And so it is that Waxman has just released The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works, co-authored with The Atlantic’s Joshua Green. But the book has a serious truth-in-advertising problem: Explaining the behind-the-scenes machinations of Congress is far from the central purpose of the book. Indeed, Waxman is quite explicit about his true goal in writing it.

“Sadly, the view of government as a positive force that serves its people has all but vanished since I first ran for office,” he writes. “Today, disdain for government is so strong that it has given rise to the idea that Congress in particular cannot do much of anything right. This cynical outlook has been nurtured by a thirty-year-long crusade led by ideological conservatives to turn the American people against their elected officials by continually disparaging them and all that they do.” Waxman continues: “I wrote this book to explain how Congress really works and to give an idea of the many accomplishments that are routinely overlooked, misunderstood, or drowned out by partisan attacks.”

Waxman might as well replace the phrase “ideological conservatives” with “the bogeyman,” as it would make that statement just about as honest. A belief in limited government — which characterizes most conservatives — does not de facto make someone opposed to government. But what’s most offensive is that Waxman is busy looking under the bed for ideological conservatives when the real reason for Congress’s 18 percent approval rating is staring at him in the mirror. Waxman has been in Congress for 35 years, and yet he doesn’t seriously acknowledge that during that time he and his colleagues might have done any number of things to earn contempt for the institution they control; or that the size and invasiveness of the government has expanded exponentially since Waxman was elected, and that this might not meet with the warm approval of taxpayers.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the beginning, which recounts Waxman’s childhood growing up Jewish in Los Angeles, on through his involvement in radical student politics in the Sixties, and eventually his elections to the California assembly and the U.S. Congress. This section of the book is all too brief, but Waxman provides some pretty interesting insights into the Democratic party’s leftward shift in the Sixties, as well as a startling portrait of the bipartisan political corruption in Sacramento in that era.

But reading between the lines, one can see in the book a demonstration that Waxman is a merciless partisan with enormous ideological blind spots. After spending the introduction explaining how his book will be a paean to all the good that government does, he begins the first chapter by explaining how his politics were greatly influenced by his parents, ardent New Dealers. “[My father’s] view of government, which he imparted to me, was unremittingly positive,” Waxman writes. “He believed it was a tremendous force for good and could still do more, often reminding me how much Roosevelt had done to help families like ours survive the hard times.” But on the very next page, Waxman makes a passing reference to the internment of Japanese-Americans in California during World War II, “many of them our neighbors.” Boy, that executive order of Roosevelt’s sure did a lot of good for those families in Waxman’s neighborhood. Waxman does refer to the internment as an “outrage,” but you’d think such an action by a politician he otherwise reveres might temper his “unremittingly positive” view of government.

Waxman is a rare bird in Congress: both an unusually effective legislator and an unusually provocative partisan who constantly angers the opposing party. This is largely due to the fact that Waxman has never faced any serious electoral challenge. In 1974 he ran in a newly created congressional district — one that he’d had a hand in drawing, in the redistricting process in the California Assembly — so he was elected from an exceptionally liberal section of Los Angeles without having to run against an incumbent. It’s been one of the safest seats in the country ever since. Consequently, as Waxman explains, he has been able to focus on raising money for Democratic colleagues, who then owe him plenty of favors.

After recounting his upbringing and pre-Congress career, Waxman spends the rest of the book highlighting a number of legislative accomplishments he’s been involved in, and then discussing the role of congressional oversight. Almost all of the legislative achievements Waxman highlights are fairly popular, ranging from AIDS funding to the Clean Air Act. There are no earth-shattering revelations in Waxman’s account of how these particular sausages were made. To save time, I’ll summarize the chapter on the Clean Air Act for you: Reagan is the devil.

The chapter on “Pesticides and Food” is full of lazy enviro-nonsense. Among other things, Waxman approvingly notes Rachel Carson’s anti-DDT hysteria, even though DDT bans made it impossible to prevent millions of malaria cases in the undeveloped world, and were enforced by rich Western countries only after they had used the chemical to eradicate malaria in their own backyards. And, incredibly, he fondly recalls the infamous scaremongering 60 Minutes report on Alar, an alleged carcinogen used on apples. Though it has since been thoroughly debunked, this irresponsible report led to a public panic that financially devastated apple growers, had mothers calling the police to intercept school buses to remove apples from their children’s lunchboxes, and resulted in the introduction of “food libel laws” in a number of states. And all this because of lab tests in which — according to the Heartland Institute — “the amount fed to mice before any effect was noted was equivalent to an average adult eating 28,000 pounds of Alar-treated apples each year for 70 years.”

But it’s the chapter on “Fraud, Waste, and Abuse” in the final section (labeled “Oversight”) that’s most galling. After the Democrats took over the House following the 2006 elections, Waxman became the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — which, in theory, should be a watchdog over government malfeasance. Instead, Waxman used the committee to attack all the favorite targets of partisan Democrats: the “reckless greed” of Wall Street and the alleged evils done by military contractors and pharmaceutical companies. That there might be fraud, waste, and abuse within government programs in need of oversight is largely a foreign concept to him.

Waxman also uses this chapter as an opportunity for some glib score-settling against the GOP. He spends pages railing against the Republican Congress for giving Dan Burton, head of the Oversight Committee — of which Waxman was the ranking member — unilateral subpoena power to investigate Clinton scandals. Of course, Waxman fails to mention the zealously partisan defense of the Clinton administration by Democratic members of that committee. His accusation in the book that Burton’s tenure on the Oversight Committee resulted in “star chambers” is dishonest hyperbole; but he’s right that giving that kind of subpoena power to a committee chairman is a mistake.

For proof, we need look no farther than Waxman’s tenure as chair of the Oversight Committee. He routinely abused his subpoena power, nearly setting up a separation-of-powers conflict by subpoenaing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice finally relented, and appeared before the committee for what turned out to be a completely unnecessary and hostile inquiry, obviously done to score partisan points in front of TV cameras. In the book, Waxman freely admits that demagoguing and shaming people in the media is an effective tactic he frequently employs. Prior to dragooning Secretary Rice, Waxman — while still in the minority — tried to get the Government Accountability Office to file a lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney. The idea that Henry Waxman has standing to accuse Republicans of investigative overreach is laughable. (For more on Waxman’s problematic tenure as chair of the Oversight Committee, see my article in NRODT from last year.)

The final two chapters of the section on oversight are devoted to 1) attacking tobacco executives and 2) making a rambling and feeble attempt to justify Congress’s inserting itself into baseball’s steroid scandal. Add a pat conclusion and some acknowledgments. Finis.

What have we learned? Primarily that Henry Waxman is not a terribly self-reflective person. The accomplishments of government, contrary to Waxman’s book, are far from “routinely overlooked, misunderstood, or drowned out by partisan attacks.” Some politician is always eager to take credit for whatever successes he can. It’s how they get elected.

It’s the failures they distance themselves from. No member of Congress has yet written a candid book about the legislation he regrets — somebody who voted for public-housing projects, protectionist trade policies, or Wall Street bailouts and is now ashamed of it. No politician has the courage to write that book. Which is a shame, because, unlike The Waxman Report, that book would probably be worth reading.

Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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