Richard Reeves

This Is How Congress Works

LOS ANGELES -- There is a story Rep. Henry Waxman during hearings on steroid use in baseball that some say is apocryphal. But I believe it -- and we have been friends for more than 25 years. It is said that after the sensational hearing where Mark McGwire said he did not want to talk about the past, the congressman came into his office the next morning and said he was surprised there was so little coverage in the newspapers.

"It's all over the sports pages," a staffer told him.

"Oh," said Waxman. He has never read the sports pages.

You could say he is some kind of pushy grind. Or you could say he has been the most effective Democratic congressman of his generation.

Last week there were a couple of reasons to assert the latter.

After years of effort, he led the House to finally pass climate change legislation, the 1,400-page "cap and trade" bill. I won't explain it to you because I can't. Only Waxman of California, and maybe his co-sponsor, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, know everything that's in there. If it passes the Senate, it will change the way we live and what we burn to keep on living.

He also wrote a book, which comes out this week: "The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works." His co-author, Joshua Green, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, must be a baseball fan, because they got the sports parts right.

The book is not for everyone, but if you wonder what those folks actually do, the book lives up to its subtitle. That is not to say the Congress is diligent, responsible or effective. Waxman is; most of his colleagues are not. By design or not, the congressman from Beverly Hills shows only that, generally, the Congress is responsive -- to the news of the day.

Waxman, who was first elected in 1974, divides his book into recollections of his long series of legislative triumphs. If timing is everything and determined patience is the secret of success, the book does indeed show how Congress and Waxman work.

Most of the examples he gives of the Congress really rousing itself to discover what he already knows are dependent on chance events that do make the front pages, television, blogs and all the rest. And when those events happen, Waxman is there with years of study and data -- and formidable deal-making skills -- to persuade his colleagues that the time is right.

Example: The Congress, with the approval of President Reagan, does nothing about AIDS legislation until Rock Hudson collapses in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where he had gone to seek medical help not available in the United States. Stating the obvious in the way he talks, Waxman writes: "The shifting nature of the public's interest is an underappreciated force in public policy."

And when that was not quite enough to get the Congress to pass AIDS legislation, the balance was tipped only when they discovered Ryan White, a 13-year-old AIDS victim from Kokomo, Ind. The name of the bill was changed to The Ryan White CARE Act, which became law in 1990.

Example: The Orphan Drug Act, providing research funding for the treatment or cure of diseases suffered by small numbers of Americans. On that one, Waxman enlisted a constituent, Jack Klugman, then the star of "Quincy, M.E.," to do two shows on such "little diseases" and the reluctance of politicians and pharmaceutical companies to pay attention to them.

Example: The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and other legislation going nowhere until the deadly release of poisons by a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, the Alaskan oil spill by the Exxon Valdez, and medical waste and needles washing up on New Jersey beaches. Each time Waxman was waiting -- and more importantly, ready.

He is an extraordinary legislator is Henry Waxman, a man not only ready, but willing and able. He knows what he's doing, and his patience is a walking argument against term limits in legislative bodies.

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