After 40 years in Congress, California Democrat Henry Waxman is calling it quits. His legacy includes a toxic fuel additive (a boondoggle known as ethanol), a failed pork-fest of a climate bill and the devastation of small businesses -- to name a few of his legislative accomplishments.
Washington Post correspondent Karen Tumulty praised Waxman, calling him “one of the last to whom the word ‘lawmaker’ still applied.”
But here’s the thing: If you spend four decades making laws, you’re going to make some bad laws. And Henry Waxman made a lot of bad laws.
Waxman deserves praise for many things. Together with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, Waxman passed a reform that improved the prescription drug patent system. He also passed a postal reform.
Waxman kept his hands impressively clean of K Street’s tainting influence. Despite being in Congress longer than “Wheel of Fortune” has been on the air, Waxman has only six former staffers in the “Revolving Door” database at the Center for Responsive Politics. Since 1989, Waxman averaged less than $30,000 from lobbyists per election – a modest sum for a committee chairman.
But Waxman committed many offenses against good government, common sense and the common good.
He is praised today for his 1990 law updating the Clean Air Act. This 1990 law basically mandated gasoline be mixed with one of two fuel additives: MTBE or ethanol. MTBE has since been banned in 25 states for contaminating groundwater. Ethanol today is widely understood as an environmentally harmful corporate-welfare boondoggle.
Then there was the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008. The law, supported by giant toymakers like Mattel, has devastated small toymakers and wreaked havoc on second-hand stores with burdensome one-size-fits-all regulation. Waxman was “one of the primary authors” of the bill, in the words of K Street lobbyist Matthew Cohen, who lobbied Congress on this bill.
As soon as Waxman took the gavel of the Energy and Commerce Committee in January 2009, he pushed back against artisanal toymakers’ pleas for relief from the CPSIA.
In the heady days of Hope & Change in early 2009, Waxman mostly kept busy working with Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., crafting one of the most convoluted, porked-up, ineffective boondoggles in the history of Congress: the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as “Waxman-Markey.”
How ugly was the sausage-making here? By the time Waxman-Markey passed the House, the bill had the endorsement of coal giant AEP, while Greenpeace was lobbying against it.
“On climate change,” General Electric executive John Rice wrote to his colleagues in 2009, “we were able to work closely with key authors of … Waxman-Markey.” Rice said Waxman-Markey spelled profits for GE.
Corporate America loved the law because it gave them free money. Waxman’s bill created greenhouse-gas emissions permits. Former White House Budget Director Peter Orszag testified in 2009, “If you didn’t auction the permits, it would represent the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States.” Waxman’s bill didn't auction the permits. Instead, it would have given away 85 percent of the permits for free to coal-fired power plants, manufacturers and other businesses.
Waxman-Markey even had a Monsanto-sought provision that subsidized farmers for controlling weeds through chemicals (such as Roundup) rather than tilling. Waxman also included a carve-out for ethanol, banning the Environmental Protection Agency from considering ethanol’s contribution to climate change. Mercifully, Waxman-Markey never passed the Senate.
Obamacare is another ugly fruit of Waxman’s legislative career. In the 2010 election, as Waxman's Commerce Committee played a central role in writing the law, Waxman was one of the top House recipients of money from the health insurance industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Many destructive provisions of Waxman’s bill survived in the final Obamacare bill, including the individual mandate, the employer mandate and rules that outlaw many health plans and thus led to millions of cancellations in late 2013.
Obamacare introduced a new tax on companies that provided federally subsidized prescription drug coverage to employees. Federal law required those companies to report to shareholders that this new Obamacare tax would lower their profits. These corporate fillings were bad press for Obamacare, so Waxman publicly scolded these companies for their reports, demanded reams of internal documents from them and threatened to haul them before his committee and C-SPAN’s cameras.
Waxman, again, has his virtues. His legislation often ended up as a corporatist boondoggle, but he avoided playing the crony-capitalist game. His intentions generally seemed wholesome.
But the road to bloated, counterproductive government is paved with good intentions. Next year, Waxman will take that road back home.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.