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Henry Waxman: The show horse / work horse

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

January 30, 2014 | 2:14 pm

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in Washington on March 20, 2010. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in Washington on March 20, 2010. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

One of the most famous ways political scientists divvy up members of Congress is to call them either “work horses” or “show horses.”  Work horses are the wonks who dig into the details of committee work and legislation, get little public recognition, but get a lot done.  Show horses chase the cameras, get lots of buzz, blow off committee meetings and the drudgery of legislation and yet rise in the political system.

This distinction falls apart for Congressman Henry Waxman, who announced that his 40-year career on Capitol Hill will end at the close of this term. Waxman  demonstrates that hard work and show can be two faces of the same phenomenon: He was able to get good things done in a governmental system built to frustrate even the best-intentioned elected officials.  With all of our gripes about gridlock, it is worth paying mind to the Waxman approach.

While his stature as a politician has made him loom large, anyone who has come into Waxman’s path would hardly pick him out of a lineup as a show horse.

Waxman came to Congress in 1974, one of the Watergate class of new Democrats who set their sights on cleaning up government and getting a lot done.  Before that, he had helped to create a new Los Angeles Democratic politics.  Along with Howard Berman, he created the famous “Waxman-Berman machine” on the Jewish Westside.  For those like me who grew up living around hard-knocks East Coast politics, calling these two men’s alliance a “machine” was a vast overstatement.  It was, in reality, more an electoral combine of like-minded activists, effective in their use of direct mail and fundraising for allied candidates, mostly in Democratic primaries.  They nurtured a generation of younger candidates, many Jewish, on the Westside and in the Valley, as well as a number of African Americans and Latinos.  In a region short of party organizations, the Waxman-Berman combine was a significant and often potent force.

Congress gave Waxman a chance to forge a different path, a national signature with which he has left a lasting mark.   Unbridled by the term limits that have so devastated legislative careers inside California, he mastered the ways of the House of Representatives, building expertise on a range of issues that matter to Democrats: healthcare, the environment, and clean government.  While many of his peers considered running for higher office -- whether the U.S. Senate or even higher, or, alternatively, rested comfortably in their House seats, secure against any electoral challenge -- Waxman became a work horse who knew how to put on a show that would lead to legislative success.

Waxman’s formula was to use all the resources of Congress, not simply to protect his incumbency (the most popular way to operate in Congress) in the service of deeply felt legislative goals.  His favorite committees would have been disastrous for more traditional congressional careers.  For example, he chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, from which perch he conducted spectacular public hearings.  He devoted his great ability to raise campaign funds primarily to getting himself onto more influential committees.  Having spread much campaign money around to his colleagues, he spent his capital to beat an incumbent, an obstructionist committee chair in 2008, to take over the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.  Waxman never showed the slightest interest in using his clout to get himself into his party’s leadership.

Waxman turned the congressional hearing into an art form, a powerful mix of the substance of thorough staff research and showmanship.  Where has this art of the congressional hearing gone?  Who today has the patience to do such real oversight? Few in Congress have ever shared his ability to run such well-designed hearings.  Back in 2005, writer David Corn called him “the Democrats’ Eliot Ness,” and while his party peers admired Waxman’s success, they were not always able to duplicate it.  For many members of Congress, a congressional hearing is a chance to come up with a clever question that makes the evening news, but such theatrics don’t move the legislative needle.

As a legislator and a true insider, Waxman knew the importance of building an outside storm in creating momentum for legislation.  His staff did deep and thorough research, but by the time their reports made it onto Waxman’s Web site, they were filled with dramatic flair.  For example, in 2004, his Web site listed “237 misleading statements” by Bush administration officials about the Iraq war.

Waxman’s most memorable moment came in 1994, when he took on the tobacco companies, tackling an issue that scared many in his own party. The hearing began as Waxman presented a well-researched, yet colorful statement on tobacco.  Then, one by one, each executive stated under oath that tobacco is not addictive.  It’s worth a read: http://senate.ucsf.edu/tobacco/executives1994congress.html  But it’s the photo of that hearing that is the most devastating, showing the lineup of executives with their hands raised.  Here is how it looked in the New York Times:

Through this combination of hard work and deliberate showmanship, Waxman rose to become one of the greatest legislators of his time, proving that a career in the House of Representatives can be highly productive.  Waxman’s fingerprints are on virtually every domestic accomplishment of recent decades, including clean air, expanded health care, drug and food labelling, and increased regulation in the interests of consumers. 

As Waxman leaves office, his congressional career stands as a challenge to those who claim Congress cannot function.  Great change requires hard work and a willingness to devote oneself in good times and bad to issues of deep significance.  But democracy is also a grand show, not just a place for wonkery.  Government can be a great teacher, but as teachers all know, you’ve got to show it, and make it dramatic, and then memorable.    


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.  He previously wrote about Henry Waxman in the Jewish Journal here.

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