Two For The Road

by John Lawrence

As accusations and recriminations flew through Washington on Tuesday following the release of the CIA report, an extraordinary collection of political leaders gathered a few blocks from the White House for a sentimental send-off to two of their legislative giants: Congressman Henry Waxman and Congressman George Miller of California. Both leave office voluntarily, heads high, with decades of accomplishments that have reshaped and improved their country and the world.

The dinner was hosted by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who, as the first woman and California Speaker, presided over some of the pair’s greatest achievements, first among them national health care. Compared to the racial, gender, and ethnic diversity of the gathering, a meeting of House Republicans would look like the smoking room at the stodgy Diogenes Club of London. The guests, a collection of the California delegation, veterans of the Class of 1974, staff and family, included five Cabinet members – Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez — who joined in numerous testimonials to the two legislators and to their wives, Janet and Cynthia, who have endured 40 years of commuter marriages.

At first blush, Waxman and Miller might appear starkly different — one short and balding, a lifelong resident of sprawling Los Angeles; the other a towering ex-footballer and lifelong resident of tiny Martinez – but they have more in common than their trademark moustaches.

  • Both are legislative masters, expert in wildly diverse fields, hugely successful in tackling complex problems and translating them into effective laws.
  • Both chaired two powerful committees of the House, Waxman led the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as well as the Committee on Energy and Commerce, while Miller chaired both the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Education and Labor. (Miller also chaired the non-legislative Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.)
  • Both authored laws that dramatically impacted the well-being of tens of millions of Americans who will never know their names: Waxman wrote laws on tobacco, Medicaid, women’s health, and auto safety; Miller laws on nutrition for women, infants and students, worker safety at home and around the world, compensation for those with occupational diseases, child care, college affordability, and victims of domestic violence.
  • Both helped shape the modern environmental and resource protection movement, Miller as the leading advocate for a modern water policy, protections of millions of acres of wilderness and national parks, and safeguarding of endangered species; Waxman as the leading craftsman on clean air, pesticide control, and clean water.
  • Both were fearsome interrogators, unafraid to take on wealthy, politically powerful and arrogant adversaries in and out of Congress: auto companies, oil and gas producers, asbestos manufacturers, the pharmaceutical industry, agribusinesses, professional athletics and sweatshop operators. In some cases, those adversaries were constituents.
  • Both played significant roles in international affairs as well, Waxman in the Middle East, Miller in South and Central America as well as Southeast Asia.
  • Both attracted, and kept, talented, respected and fanatically loyal staff, many of whom served for decades and who, from the receptionists to the chief of staff, were valued parts of the team who rarely, if ever, referred to the boss as anything but “Henry” and “George.”

These achievements, and many others far too numerous to mention, stand not only as examples of their remarkable legislative careers, but of the ability of Congress to act decisively, expansively and collaboratively to address genuine social needs. Miller and Waxman are living repudiations of the misguided maligning of government by the cynics who disdain our national institutions in favor of the arbitrariness of the marketplace. Indeed, if the marketplace solved all problems, there would have been no need for legislators like Miller and Waxman. Yet can we even imagine where this country would be on issues like energy, smoking, health, the environment, labor rights or product safety without them?

Despite serving in contentious times, both Waxman and Miller found ways to work constructively with their Republican counterparts. Nearly every major piece of the legislation authored by these two committed liberals – whether in the majority or the minority – was developed and enacted with the close collaboration of some of the most conservative members of the House and Senate: Don Young, Tom Bliley, John Boehner, Henry Hyde, Don Nichols, Orrin Hatch, Frank Murkowski. That record, too, stands in sharp contrast to the current belief that reasonable collaboration between the parties and ideologies is undesirable if not impossible. Indeed, one of Miller’s last legislative achievements is a bipartisan strengthening of child care law that includes his signature emphasis on improving quality.

If ever there was inarguable evidence of the ill-wisdom of term limits, Waxman and Miller are it. Their decades of service provided the wisdom, the background, the maturity and the craftiness to take on entrenched powers and prevail. The turnover rate of the past decade would seem to demonstrate that the public seems to be doing a pretty good job at replacing legislators on their own without imposing artificial limits that deprive the country of talented public servants.

Miller and Waxman are the last two House Members who arrived as so-called “Watergate Babies,” a group of 75 Democrats elected in the aftermath of the Nixon resignation and pardon and in the waning months of America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. Their service began in an era of what seemed to be incredible office innovation — IBM Selectric typewriters, WATS lines and new-fangled fax machines — and endured throughout the transformation of American society by virtue of nearly every economic, innovative, ethnic, gender and demographic measure. They helped push it along. (There are two remaining Democrats from the Class, but each has an asterisk next to his name: Sen. Ed Markey, who was elected in a special in 1976 and served longer continuously in the House than anyone who has ever moved to the so-called “upper body,” and Rick Nolan, who returned to the House in 2012 after the longest sabbatical – 32 years – in congressional history. Both attended the dinner Tuesday night.)

By the end of the evening, the harsh reality was beginning to impose itself on the most denying of attendees: this was truly the end of two historic and productive congressional careers. When the lights go up on the vote board in the House chamber next January, for the first time since 1975, the names “Henry Waxman” and “George Miller” will not be there. The institution they helped embellish and honor will be dimmed by their departure.