Lichen Frittata

Henry Waxman Spills the Beans

Posted in Uncategorized by lichenfrittata on July 24, 2009

My review of Rep. Waxman’s new book, The Waxman Report, didn’t quite cut the mustard with the two D.C. publications to which I am currently wired. This blog, with its ridiculously low standards, gladly took their reject.

A very dangerous book!

A very dangerous book!

The most dedicated environmentalists were not happy with the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill as it passed the House in June, watered-down mess that it was. The more practical ones, however, knew that Henry Waxman was in charge, which meant it was the best they were likely to get.

This was just the latest in a lifetime of overreaching, sometimes downright crazy, and eventually successful projects for the California Representative—from critical pharmaceuticals to AIDS treatment to Pentagon waste, now dispatched and as he would say, taken for granted. In fact, Waxman measures the chapters of his life in legislative campaigns. Chapter 6 is entitled, “The Nutrition Labeling and Educational Act of 1990 and the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.” That’s the longest header.

Waxman’s new book, The Waxman Report, isn’t really a memoir. Biography factors in only near the beginning, as he—or his co-writer, Atlantic journalist Joshua Green—sets the scene for his 35-year career in Congress. Other personal details are offered in the service of relating to policy issues, like how his lifelong struggle with weight gain illuminated the need for nutritional labeling (a Waxman triumph) or why relapsing into a smoking habit fired his crusade against the tobacco companies (perhaps his greatest).

No, this isn’t an autobiography—it’s a strategy manual. To a packed house at the Sixth and I synagogue in Washington, D.C., Waxman described his campaigns as would an old general, waffling only briefly on which one he thought was his favorite. The publisher Twelve books asked him to write it, he said, because they knew it would be important. And he might have titled it The Art of Legislative War.

“Not every legislative battle is decided on a dramatic showdown on the House floor,” he writes, in Sun Tzu-esque dicta. “Some are won quietly through the clever drafting of a bill, and victory seized before the matter can ever come to a vote. This became our strategy.”

“When confronted by a steamroller, as we were about to be, you first need to slow its momentum,” goes another Waxmanism. “There are two ways to go about this. One way is to stall, by whipping up a blizzard of amendments that demand the committee’s attention, while pursuing every parliamentary maneuver in the rule book to delay the proceedings. The other way is to win a skirmish, to prevail on an amendment and force the other side to have to fall back and regroup, in the process sowing doubt and discord in its ranks.” One useful tactic: read every amendment aloud to “throw sand in the gears.” No wonder a former U.S. Senator called him “tougher than a boiled owl.”

This is an important thing to understand about Henry Waxman. He’s not interested in changing how the battle is fought, like a Russ Feingold or a John McCain. As Charles Homans described it in his excellent profile, “While other congressmen railed against the failings of the system… Waxman simply tried to master them.” Bipartisanship is useful when you need it, to the extent that incorporating ideas from both sides enhances a law’s chance of surviving down the line (a definition the Obama administration seems to have adopted). Beyond that, you help the people on your team, to lay the groundwork for future battles so that you don’t need it. In California state politics, for example, Waxman didn’t attempt to sugarcoat the point of redistricting: “to figure out how to draw a map that would yield the best result for the Democratic party,” he writes, which meant to “fiddle with the borders until you’ve maximized the number of safe Democratic seats and call it a day.” He takes the same view of distributing cash to his friends in Congress: what some might view as buying influence, he calls “coalition building.”

Rather than some grand mission for Justice or Equality, Waxman talks about the “struggle for effectiveness.”  That struggle has been defined by his own tactical position, which, for the vast majority of his career, has been either in the minority or fighting a Republican president. One of the longstanding themes of his tenure is the battle to subvert the authority of an old lion on the Energy and Commerce Committee: Michigan Democrat John Dingell, whom he defeated for leadership of the committee earlier this year. He has done it by seeing unlikely coalitions, not writing anyone off as an enemy before testing whether they might have common interests. And he has done it by doggedly pursuing the truth, making use of the Oversight committee’s investigative staff to prove that cigarettes cause cancer and that tobacco CEOs were lying about it, to expose millions of dollars in taxpayer money wasted on overcharging contractors in Iraq.

Which brings us to the real audience for this book. It’s not the public, really; his detailed policy discussions won’t sell many copies outside the Beltway. It’s addressed to young members of Congress, learning how things work, perhaps how he envisioned himself three decades ago. Specifically, the ones in the minority—Republicans—now facing perhaps eight more years in the political wilderness, now with hundreds of billions of federal dollars to police.

Who among conservatives should hope that a thoughtful and open-minded aide picks up a copy for his boss? Newbies like Illinois freshman Aaron Schock, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and could make his mark by tracking stimulus money to make sure it’s going where it should. Or the still-young Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, senior member of Ways and Means, who could use Waxman’s techniques to fight for accountability in whatever new health care system ends up being put in place.

The moral to every story Waxman tells is that government can be a force for good in average peoples’ lives—something that conservatives may not cotton on to quite as well. But he clearly delights in the sausagemaking aspect of ramming laws through his Byzantine House, and at times, it even feels as if he’s giving away secrets from the progressive playbook. Lessons learned from his Report could be of use to anyone who either wants to advance an initiative or throw a wrench in someone else’s.

You don’t get the feeling that Waxman would mind, though. Because at bottom, that’s what Waxman really wants: sausage made well.

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