Few in the history of the United States Congress have so positively impacted the lives of millions of Americans and changed the way the US does business as has Congressman Henry Waxman, who leaves office January 2nd after serving in the House of Representatives for forty years.
Henry has served the district of my congregation for most of that time, and this past Shabbat evening hundreds in our community came to honor him and express our collective gratitude for his life-time of service not just to us here in Los Angeles, but to the nation as a whole.
Henry is a strong and principled man. His Jewish values have guided him from his earliest years growing up in Boyle Heights, and he believes that good government can overcome any entrenched power that eclipses the public’s interest and bring important benefits to people all over the country.
One must wonder, however, in light of the current dysfunction of our federal government, how he has been able to be so remarkably prolific as a legislator. I believe he has succeeded for many reasons. Henry is legally and politically skillful, keenly intelligent, moral, savvy, patient, persistent, perseverent, and blessed with a quick wit and disarming sense of humor.
When Henry entered the California legislature as a young man, and then Congress in the post-Watergate years (1974), he also took seriously the challenge of mastering the legislative process. He became an expert in the health care system and the science of the environment, as well as a thoughtful advocate of the American-Israel strategic relationship. Henry also mastered the budgetary process and devoted himself as both a majority leader and then minority leader to government oversight. He reached out across the aisle and successfully included Republican co-sponsors in all legislation he authored (one of the secrets to his legislative success), except one, the Affordable Care Act, which frustrated him because so many of the ideas incorporated in the bill had been suggested by Republicans.
Five years ago Henry gave me a copy of his memoir The Waxman Report, (still available from his local office) a title drawn from his family’s early east Los Angeles newspaper called “The Waxman Reporter.” His book is a chronicle of the challenges, successes and failures that he faced in his 40-year congressional career and in the California legislature, and is a veritable guide in how to be effective as elected public servants.
Most members of Congress would be thrilled to claim success in shepherding one or two bills into law. Henry’s record of accomplishment is one of the most expansive and distinguished in the history of the House of Representatives. Here is a partial list of what he has succeeded in bringing into law:
• He challenged Big Tobacco, forced a showdown with the CEOs of all the major tobacco companies, shined a light on the threats to the health and well-being of millions of Americans by emphasizing the addictive character of nicotine and its many health risks, the tobacco companies’ deliberate marketing of cigarettes to children, their manipulation of the nicotine level in their products, the number of consequent deaths, and the drain on the America’s health care system;
• He passed bills to ban smoking in restaurants and on domestic airplanes;
• He passed the Clean Air Act limiting toxic air emissions thereby protecting the ozone layer of the atmosphere, limiting the release of cancer-causing toxic emissions and other hazardous air pollutants thus saving tens of thousands of lives;
• He expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor and elderly;
• He funded the first government-sponsored HIV/AIDS research;
• He passed bills lowering drug prices through generic alternatives thus saving the American taxpayer trillions of dollars;
• He fostered the development of hundreds of new drugs to treat rare diseases (Orphan Drug Act);
• He got nutritional labels placed on food packaging (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act; Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act);
• He passed laws to keep food free of pesticides (Food Quality Protection Act);
• He cleaned up the nation’s water supplies (Safe Drinking Water Act);
• He held hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball resulting in the Clean Sports Act;
• He established federal standards for nursing homes to protect the elderly from abuse and neglect;
• He sought to stop taxpayer waste, fraud and abuse in areas from Wall Street to Hurricane Katrina clean-up, and to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Henry Waxman has been as effective as any legislator in the last century of the American Congress. He succeeded because he and his staff were always prepared, always smarter and more skillful than his opposition and the most powerful special interests. No one ever intimidated him.
All the while, Henry attended to his district. Recently, a woman told me that she had approached Henry after her husband got sick as a consequence of his army service in the first Gulf War. He had lost his health insurance, the family had gone bankrupt and was on the verge of losing their home. He eventually died, but Henry saved this woman’s home from dispossession.
His support for the security of the state of Israel and for the liberation of Soviet and Syrian Jewry, distinguishes Henry as well in late 20th century Jewish history.
Henry is blessed with an extraordinary wife and life-partner, Janet, who is as smart, sophisticated, insightful, astute, refined, and decent as he. Her support, counsel and partnership with Henry have not only served him well, but also our nation. Together, they have a wonderful family and are deeply committed and educated Jews.
My wife Barbara and I consider Henry and Janet Waxman as dear friends. As they begin a new stage of their lives together, I wish them good health, joy with their children and grandchildren (note: Henry is the only sitting member of Congress who has three sabra grandchildren), and their many friends.
Despite Henry’s retirement from Congress, something tells me that America has not heard the last of Henry Waxman. He has still much to contribute to the nation, and I suspect he will do so with his characteristic intelligence, passion and skill.
May Henry Waxman’s legacy of service to our nation be the standard against which all current and future members of Congress be evaluated.