Rep. Henry Waxman is retiring from Congress, in part, he says, because of the “extremism of the Tea Party Republicans. I am embarrassed that the greatest legislative body in the world too often operates in a partisan intellectual vacuum.” Yet the fact is that few members have contributed more to the partisanship, extremism and dysfunction of Congress than Henry Waxman in his four decades of service.
Over those years his attitude toward his political opponents has been not only that they were wrong, but that they are deserving of no respect whatsoever. That was not how Congress worked when Waxman first arrived, but in no small part thanks to him, it is the norm for Congress today.
Waxman’s first contribution to dysfunctional politics won’t be mentioned in the fawning accounts of his career in the state and national media; his involvement in the arcane world of redistricting. Waxman was elected to the California Assembly in 1968 and became chair of the redistricting committee in 1971.
Redistricting could be partisan, but at least people were honorable. Waxman was not. His main objective in the 1971 redistricting was to create a seat for his fellow Democratic and an old pal, Howard Berman. That’s fine, but in Waxman’s case he just rolled over the Republican opposition since his scheme required collapsing Republican seats. This set off a two year long redistricting war the likes of which California had never seen and out of that grew the partisan hatreds that colored life in the California legislature for decades.
Waxman went to Congress in 1974 and was soon joined by Howard Berman. For years they schemed to make sure they had safe congressional districts for themselves even though that meant denying fair representation to the growing Latino population in the San Fernando Valley. Waxman’s bleeding heart liberalism never extended to making his own political life uncomfortable.
That attitude finally caught up with Waxman and Berman in 2011 when the Citizens Redistricting Commission added a Latino seat in the Valley and gave both Waxman and Berman very bad districts. Waxman is not retiring because he is tired of Congress; he is leaving because he no longer has a sweetheart district drawn for him by his friends.
Over his decades in Congress, Waxman was well known for showing utter contempt for his political and policy opponents, never willing to admit that they may have a legitimate argument once in a while. That attitude led him to reshape the investigating committees which he chaired in the 1990s into star chambers, most notably when he harangued tobacco executives at a famous 1994 hearing.
Anti-tobacco liberals and Democrats loved that of course. But now Rep. Darrell Issa (R-San Diego), the current chairman of the main investigating committee, does exactly the same thing to his political enemies Waxman once did, and left wingers and Democrats decry his behavior. Well, maybe they should look at who started using Congress like a tool for personal inquisitions, Henry Waxman.
Waxman never deviated from firm support for whatever progressive fad was in vogue at the time, and eventually this was his undoing, and that of his party. After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Waxman thought his day had arrived. He organized a coup against Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and succeeded in ousting him. Waxman then took over, and immediately pushed through the House a cap and trade emissions bill that was far too extreme for the nation and was little more than a poorly disguised attack on Waxman’s favorite great satans, including the coal industry.
In the 2010 election, that bill led to massive Democratic loses in industrial and border state districts, leading to the loss of Democratic control of the House, and the rise of the Tea Party which Waxman so much despises. Waxman also helped shape the 2009 Obamacare legislation which, if the polls are to be believed, may cost Democrats control of the United States Senate this year.
In the process of pushing through the House bills that lacked broad national support, he helped dismantle his own Democratic Party in state after state. Thanks in part to Waxman, his own party is now too extreme in places like Oklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – states that were the bedrock of the Democratic majority in the House when he was first elected.
In his 88th year and 59th year of service in the House, John Dingell will seek a 30th term in Michigan this year and will be re-elected. Although now in the minority meaning he won’t ever chair a committee again, Dingell won’t be a bit sorry to see Waxman go.