Waxman, Henry A.(U.S. Representative) (D-CA) Was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment in 1994.
At the 1994 hearings conducted by U.S. Representive Waxman's subcommittee, Philip Morris president and CEO William I. Campbell offered this response to one question: “I hear your request. I have to take – I’ll make the commitment to look into it and to put the two staffs together. ... I have no problem giving you any material if it’s not in some way involved in active litigation at this time.” The answer prompted Henry Waxman to lecture Campbell that, “litigation is not a reason not to give the Congress of the United States information. We expect to get it.” And when R. J. Reynolds President and CEO James W. Johnston tried to compare his product to Twinkies, Waxman shot back, “Yes, but the difference between cigarettes and Twinkies is death.” The blunt responses were typical of the no-nonsense approach that has made Waxman one of the most respected members of the U. S. House of Representatives.
Henry Arnold Waxman was born in Los Angeles on September 12, 1939. His father ran a grocery store in Watts and the family lived in an apartment over the store. His grandparents on both sides were Russian Jewish émigrés and the young Henry heard harrowing accounts of how they escaped from Bessarabia after the Kishinev pogroms that occurred between 1903 and 1906. “My grandparents would tell me about how the anti-Semites would come into town and destroy property, beat people up, threaten their lives, and they just felt they could no longer stay,” Waxman would recall. Their experiences helped turn their grandson into a passionate crusader for the oppressed and someone for whom politics was personal.
While still in junior high school, he wore an Adlai Stevenson button to school and had it confiscated by a teacher. He then served as statewide president of the California Federation of Young Democrats at UCLA, while earning a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1961 that made him the first college graduate in the family. Waxman next earned a J.D. from the UCLA Law School in 1964 but after only a few years of practicing law he ran for the California State Assembly in 1968. He ran against a veteran incumbent and was such an underdog that even his uncle, a newspaper publisher, declined to endorse him. But Waxman won the election, beginning a forty-year string of unbroken electoral success.
During his three terms in the California State Assembly, he chaired the Committee on Elections and Reapportionment, the Health Committee, and the Select Committee on Medical Malpractice and was the author of legislation in all three fields, including the Fair Credit for Women Law and the Fair Campaign Practices Act. Waxman also married the former Janet Kessler during these years; they have now been married for nearly forty years and have two children and four grandchildren.
In 1974, Waxman was elected to represent California’s 24th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. He would note with pride in 2006 that the election made him “the first Jew ever to have been elected from Southern California and the first in California in forty years.” He continues to this day to represent that constituency, which encompasses Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Malibu, West Hollywood, and several suburbs of Los Angeles, although due to redistricting it is now known as the state’s 30th Congressional District. Since coming to Washington, Waxman has made health and environmental issues his legislative priorities and has become especially well known for his tough stance on oversight of both governmental and nongovernmental bodies.
Profiles of Waxman invariably make much of the contrast between glitzy Hollywood and the man who represents the home of the stars in the House of Representatives. Waxman has famously never attended the Academy Awards (“It’s such a long night. When I watch it on TV, I can get a snack”). He is a notorious workaholic who is unable to name a hobby when asked.
The contrast in appearance is even more striking and few of the journalists who have profiled him can resist frequent references to Waxman’s short stature and lack of charisma. “Nobody has ever accused Waxman of gaining success through his charisma or by cutting a dashing figure. Standing less that five-and-a-half-feet tall, bald and with a toothy grin, he would never be cast as a powerful politician by his constituents in the movie industry,” remarked Tom Tugend. “He stands 5 ft. 5, speaks softly and has all the panache of your parents’ dentist,” added Karen Tumulty of Time. A reporter for the Nation pointed out that, “The snub-nosed, bespectacled, balding and far-from-tall Waxman is not flamboyant or flashy.” And Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone chipped in with: “Waxman looks more like a lovable character actor than a fire-breathing congressman: He’s a bald fireplug of a man, with a knot of a nose and a broad, bushy mustache. His diminutive stature doesn’t really strike you until you see the photos that line his suite in the Rayburn Office Building – he’s towered over not only by the likes of George McGovern, Ronald Reagan and Al Gore but also Rosalynn Carter.”
Yet what Waxman lacked in style, he made up for in substance. According to a 1990 profile in the Los Angeles Times, “his influence on Capitol Hill is profound. In less than 16 years, he has become one of the most prominent members of the House, a leader on environmental issues and a key player on virtually all health legislation.”
A key component of that reputation was his 1979 decision to seek the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Commerce Committee. It was generally assumed that the position would go to Richardson Preyer, a Democrat from North Carolina who had seniority. But Waxman fought hard for the assignment, questioning Preyer’s ties to the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries, and eventually was chosen to chair the subcommittee. He did so from 1979 to 1994 and became a feared figure by his frequent insistence that witnesses testify under oath when appearing before his subcommittee.
In the process, Waxman make some unlikely enemies and some even more implausible friends on the Hill. He butted heads often with Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, even though both men were associated with the liberal wing of the party. And he forged an alliance with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, the archconservative from Utah who chaired the Senate’s Labor and Human Resources Committee (which had jurisdiction over health issues).
Smoking was one of the issues that brought them together. Though for different reasons – Hatch was a strict Mormon while Waxman was a former chain smoker – the two men shared a sense of moral outrage toward the tobacco industry. While their alliance was always shaky, it proved enduring enough to change the climate on Capitol Hill.
Waxman first took on the tobacco industry in 1983 on the matter of warning labels and, after a series of complicated maneuvers, his bill passed. According to Richard Kluger, the resulting law “represented a turning point in the [tobacco] industry’s hold on the federal legislative machinery. Its lobbyists were perceived by a growing number of lawmakers as duplicitous agents of to-the-bitter-end moguls, and smoking was no longer an issue that could only embarrass everyone in Congress. The 1984 act, moreover, marked the emergence of Henry Waxman as what one Philip Morris attorney called ‘a very dangerous adversary.’”
Over the ensuing decade, Waxman would repeatedly take on the industry. While his victories were few, and most of his proposals failed to garner the support of a majority of the members of his subcommittee, those he did achieve were significant. One of the most notable ones came when he finally succeeded in pressuring the industry to make public a list of tobacco additives that included many toxic substances, a development that prompted extensive press coverage.
Then in 1994, after the election of Bill Clinton had changed the landscape in Washington again, Waxman subpoenaed the top executives of the seven largest U. S. tobacco manufacturers and forced them to testify under oath. The resulting testimony was another landmark event, with the executives repeating their longstanding denials of being aware of any risks, only to be admonished by Waxman: “All of you have a responsibility to say something more than you don’t know. You have a responsibility to know.”
As Allan M. Brandt puts it, the day was a turning point: “For the industry, the executives’ implausible testimony – and the image of them standing in a row, with their right hands raised – was an unprecedented media disaster. Newscasts and newspapers throughout the country led with accounts of the tobacco CEOs’ professed ignorance about the dangers of their product. Editorialists and columnists across the political spectrum had a field day submitting reviews of Waxman’s political theater. ‘Good thing no one asked those tobacco executives whether they think the world is round or flat,’ commented the Baltimore Sun. A New York Times editorial noted, ‘It was a shameful day for American business, even though we are wearily familiar with the obfuscations employed by the defenders of an industry responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million Americans every year.’ [Industry public relations guru] John Hill had understood in 1953 that the strategy he had helped mastermind would one day stop working; now the day had arrived.” For all of the contrast between Henry Waxman and his constituents in Hollywood, he had put on a masterful piece of “political theater.”
The Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 1995, beginning a long exile from power for Waxman’s party. Yet Waxman’s influence continued to increase, especially after he became the ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 1997. Waxman liked to say that the committee had “oversight and investigative jurisdiction over everything” and he took advantage so fully that The Nation dubbed him “the Democrats’ Eliot Ness.” In 1998, he created a Special Investigations Division to investigate matters that he felt the full committee had neglected and used his powers to launch hundreds of probes on waste, fraud, and abuse in government contracting.
As Karen Tumulty put it, “In the Democrats’ wilderness years, Waxman fashioned himself as his party’s chief inquisitor. Working with one of the most highly regarded staffs on Capitol Hill, he has spent the past eight years churning out some 2,000 headline-grabbing reports, blasting the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress on everything from faulty prewar intelligence and flaws in missile defense to the flu-vaccine shortage and arsenic in drinking water.”
During these years, Waxman lost no opportunity to point out the shortcomings of the Bush Administration. For instance, in 2004, at Waxman’s request, the Minority Office of the Committee on Government Reform published “Iraq on the Record, the Bush Administration’s Public Statements on Iraq,” a compilation of 237 specific statements made by Bush Administration officials about the situation in Iraq that misrepresented facts known by U. S. intelligence at the time they were made.
Of course, Waxman made enemies and had his critics, especially among Republicans who maintained that he was partisan in deciding when to unleash his investigatory skills. These critics pointed out that the same man who pursued iniquity among conservatives with such zeal had often sought to avoid congressional investigations during the Clinton presidency, even leading a Democratic walkout after Republicans released a report about the firing of White House travel-office employees. But nobody questioned the tenacity, diligence and courage with which Henry Waxman took on his foes.
With the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 midterm elections, Waxman became chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The response of the Democrats to their return to power has generally been seen as lackluster, but Waxman’s performance has been a notable exception. While his counterpart on the Senate’s oversight committee, Joe Lieberman, has mostly gone after low-profile targets, Waxman has taken full advantage of the position and the subpoena authority that goes with it to tackle high-profile and thorny topics.
He scrutinized FEMA’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, grilled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about missteps and mismanagement in Iraq, brought to light new details of the Valerie Plame scandal and the Bush administration’s use of no-bid contracting, and elicited Dick Cheney’s extraordinary claim that the vice president is not “an entity within the executive branch.” There were missteps as well, such as a probe of baseball and steroids that Waxman himself admitted had been ill-advised. But overall Waxman provided such thorough oversight during these years that Ralph Nader was moved to remark, “Henry Waxman is the only argument against term limits. He’s the
only guy who doesn’t burn out, or wear out, or sell out.”
During his long tenure in Washington, Henry Waxman has played a key role in legislation on an ever-increasing number of topics. While health and environmental issues and oversight and reform remain his fortes, these are fields that touch on countless other areas and Waxman has never shied away from a controversial issue. Topics such as climate change and the high cost of prescription drugs have become particularly high priorities in recent years.
But Waxman has never lost interest in tobacco control and continues to weigh in with his views on a regular basis. In a 1997 op-ed, he lambasted discussion of giving the tobacco companies immunity form future liability as “a Faustian bargain,” arguing that, “We don’t pay polluters not to pollute, we don’t pay drug dealers not to sell drugs, and we shouldn’t have to offer immunity and regulatory relief to tobacco companies to get them to stop addicting our children.” In 2007, Waxman sponsored the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a bill that would give the FDA greater authority to regulate tobacco products. In explaining the needed for the measure, Waxman condemned the tobacco industry’s targeting of children and contended that tobacco claims the lives of 400,000 Americans per year and “can be harder to break than addiction to even cocaine and heroin,” yet “[t]obacco products despite their overwhelming dangers currently receive less regulation than lollypops.”
Henry Waxman’s seat in the House has long been regarded as a safe one – a 2001 profile in The Jewish Journal noted that “Waxman has never been in a tough election fight, and the only excitement after the polls close is in guessing whether he’ll win by a ‘low’ 64 percent of the votes or a high of 74 percent.” In addition, he has made it clear that he is happy in the House and is not interested in seeking any other office.
Nonetheless, he was confronted with two difficult political decisions in 2008. The first with his status as one of the superdelegates who, for a while, looked as though they might decide the closely contested race between Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. While many of the superdelegates went on the record with their preference, Waxman remained neutral and did not endorsed either candidate until after Clinton’s concession.
Waxman made the second key decision after the November 2008 elections that swept Barack Obama into the presidency by announcing his intention to seek the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which was again being chaired by the indomitable John Dingell. Dingell had no desire to relinquish the chair, and Waxman’s attempt to once again buck the House’s seniority system created controversy, with press reports describing his candidacy as a “coup” or an effort to “dump” Dingell. Waxman’s champions justified his decision by contending that Dingell had been too slow to address environmental issues like global warming, while Dingell’s supporters maintained that significant progress had been made.
In a secret vote, the Democratic House Caucus chose Waxman over Dingell by a 137-122 margin. Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, called Waxman’s victory “a breath of fresh air – of clean air. It was a stunning defeat for the corporate lobbyists on K Street. It shows that a majority of the House Democrats are ready to work with the incoming Obama administration on effective global warming legislation.” But others saw the vote in different terms. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia called it “highly inappropriate. There was no obvious reason for it other than the desire for another person to chair the committee.”
Regardless of one’s perspective, Waxman’s ascendance to this key chairmanship ensures that Henry A. Waxman will remain an important and influential figure in his latest efforts to bring “fresh air” to Capitol Hill and to Americans.
Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
David Corn, “Waxman: Democrats’ Eliot Ness,” The Nation, February 14, 2005.
Tim Dickinson, “Investigating Bush,” Rolling Stone, April 17, 2008, 37-39.
Josh Getlin, “What Makes Henry Tick? Private, Persistent and Powerful, Rep. Waxman Was Networking Long Before the Strategy Became Chic,” Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1990.
Philip J. Hilts, “Tobacco Chiefs Say Cigarettes Aren’t Addictive,” New York Times, April 15, 1994.
Richard Kluger, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
Official House Website of Rep. Henry Waxman (http://www.waxman.house.gov/).
Tom Tugend, “Undefeated Champion: Rep. Henry Waxman Wants to Help Democrats,” The Jewish Journal, January 26, 2001.
Karen Tumulty, “The Scariest Guy in Washington,” Time, November 27, 2006.
Henry A. Waxman, “Core Values Too Often Ignored,” The Jewish Journal, May 11, 2006 (partial transcript of remarks Waxman gave at USC at the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture on April 23, 2006).
Henry A. Waxman, “Don’t Hand Victory to Tobacco Companies,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1997 (also available on Waxman’s official House website).
Henry A. Waxman, “Why I’m Backing the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act,” http://www.house.gov/waxman/pdfs/Oped_antismoking_3-28-2007.pdf.
“Waxman Topples Dingell for Key Panel Chair,” AP wire report, November 20, 2008.
For More Biographical Information:
The Almanac of American Politics: The senators, the representatives, and the governors: their records and election results, their states and districts. 2002 edition, edited by Michael Barone, Richard E. Cohen, and Charles E. Cook, Jr. (Washington, DC: National Journal, 2001).
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989. The Continental Congress, September 5, 1774 to October 21, 1788 and the Congress of the United States from the first through the one hundredth Congresses, March 4, 1789, to January 3, 1989, inclusive. Bicentennial Edition. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989).
Who’s Who in Government. Second edition, 1975-1976. (Chicago: Marquis Who’s Who, 1975)