Veteran Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman announced his retirement Thursday, to the surprise of many on Capitol Hill. The 74-year-old has spent four decades in Congress, and his absence marks the end of an era for California politics.
Shortly after announcing his retirement, Waxman spoke with Take Two's Alex Cohen from his office in Washington to talk about his decision to leave office, what legislation he's proud to have been a part of and what's next for him.
On why he is retiring:
"I am not stepping down. I am going to serve until the end of the year, but I'm not going to run for reelection. At the end of the year, I will have been in the Congress for 40 years. I think this is a good moment to turn the job over to somebody younger who could develop seniority, take on the task of carrying on some of the fights that I have been involved in and are important to our community in Los Angeles.
"I have been very proud of the accomplishments, and I'm always mindful of the fact that my parents said to me, 'The rich and the powerful had strong advocates. What you've got to do is stand up for the poor, the sick, the elderly and people who don't have other voices on their behalf.'"
On the accomplishments he's most proud of:
"My battles against the tobacco industry, which ended with legislation to regulate them for the first time ever. The Affordable Care Act that is going to provide millions of people access to health insurance, even if they've had preexisting medical conditions, and stop them from being discriminated against as women have to pay more, just because they're women.
"The Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water law, which are the most powerful environmental laws that are on the books. And the job there is still undone until we do something about climate change, but the president is moving forward with that I can say with satisfaction."
On the criticism of the Affordable Care Act:
"This is a transition period when you have something this complicated as big as the Affordable Care Act, there were problems when Medicare was being phased in, or even the Medicare prescription drug bill, which took place just several years ago. At the beginning, people threw up their hands, 'This is just terrible its not working.'
"Every American citizen will be able to go to an exchange and buy a health insurance policy. They won't be prohibited if they can't afford it because if they're very low income they'll have some help to pay for it. If they have been sick in the past, they'll be able to get insurance and not be discriminated against. People are seeing the benefits of those who are on Medicare, because preventive services are now available for free, and the cost for pharmaceuticals are not going to be extraordinary for seniors as they've been in the past.
"But before this law, I authored laws to expand health care for kids and pregnant women below the poverty line. ... Just to be sure children as a category have access to health insurance, they'll certainly have it now under the Affordable Care Act, but we had to fight for that. In this country, we spend more money on health care than anywhere in the world, but yet we've had millions without access to it. It's not a fair system; we've got to pull it together.
"I don't think this is the end result. The flaws are an important transition as we try to pull our system together so we can pull down health care costs and make sure the needs of all Americans are met when they have health issues."
On the difficult of achieving bipartisan compromise:
"Bipartisan compromise has always been important to me. Almost every bill that I've authored into law — and I've probably authored more than just about anybody else — had bipartisan support. We're going through a difficult time now in Congress. It's quite dysfunctional, because the Tea Party Republican extremists have taken over, and their view is compromise is a dirty word.
"Even talking and working with Democrats is like complicity with the enemy. Well, that's ridiculous. I think Republicans are going to reject that. They're having a civil war in their own party because the Republicans don't want a party that's going to be so anti doing anything for the public.
"Even in the last year, we got some good bills through, working on a bipartisan basis. Selling the spectrum for telecommunications to raise money for first responders to be able to have an inter-operable system to communicate. We gave the FDA authority to track drugs that might be contaminated. These are important things. It's not the big things. What we ought to be doing now is trying to get people jobs. That's the most important thing. The Republicans at the moment want to say no to everything that President Obama wants, just because it's Obama. That doesn't make sense to me. It's unfortunate."
On his experience working with other Democrats:
"I want to work with those who agree with me on an issue and work with them another time if they disagree, but stand up and fight for what I believe in. I found myself dealing with the Clean Air Act, with the Democratic chairman of my committee, John Dingle from Detroit, was siding with the Reagan Administration to gut the law in the 1980s, we later worked together to improve it.
"When President Obama became president, I ran for the chairmanship. John Dingle had been there for 37 years as chairman of the committee, and I knew that the President maybe had only a year to get important laws through. I thought I could do a better job, and the Democratic caucus supported me to replace John Dingle as chairman. He's a great member of Congress, he's a historical figure, in what he's been able to get through. After I won, he was really decent about it all. We worked together, because what we ultimately care about is getting good things done. "
Is he proud of his reputation for being "short in stature, feisty and quite tenacious"?
"Absolutely. Well, one, I can't so anything about being short, but what I really care about is to do what I can for the public interest, trying to help people, and sometimes that means you have to go in and speak out. I don't take it personally when I end up in a political fight, because people have a point of view, but I do try to win because I think it's important.
"I believe government has to play a very essential role in helping people have an equal opportunity and to be treated fairly, and if things don't turn out well, to have a safety net under them. To respect the dignity of every individual, not to be so far down at the bottom that there's just no help for them at all. I fought for health care and I fought for a safety net program, Social Security is essential. Those are the things I believe in."
On what's next for him:
"I don't know. I am in Congress until the end of this year, then after that I will think through what options I have. If I'm going to have a career aside from being in Congress, I felt this was the time to make that transition. But I don't know what I'm transitioning to, but I will stay active in fighting for the things that I believe in and to make good policy progress for people."
On what he sees as the future of the California delegation:
"California is the largest state. It's a powerful state. We've had a lot of good, new members just in the last election come and join us. We'll have others as well. I think sometimes people look at Californians a little differently because there's so many of us in Congress, but we're going to be heard. We've got to be sure that California's interests are protected."
On his top priority for the rest of his term:
"My top priority is to work with the administration in trying to get rules in place to stop the contribution of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change and threaten our planet. If we don't take real steps in this direction, we may only have around 15 years before we get to the point where whatever we do is going to be too late. And we're going to see the seas rising and the climate that we're threatened with every day change dramatically.
"So I think it's an essential issue. I'm astonished that the Republicans refuse to believe or hear the overwhelming scientific consensus. They act as if there's no problem at all, and they just want to protect the oil, gas and coal industries. I think that's short-sighted. I thought the issue was put very well by Elon Musk when he said, 'If there's just a 10 percent chance that the dire predictions about climate change are right, how can we take the risk on the only atmosphere we share?' Because once its gone, its gone. We've got to continue to fight for doing something about climate change."
On his concern about the future of the Tribune Company:
"We've been trying to get information about the Tribune's plans for the L.A. Times and other newspapers. I fear that when they're finished with all their business transactions, the L.A. Times won't be able to survive. We rely on the newspaper. I know there are other media that communicate news we rely on, but I want a viable L.A. Times. This is a major newspaper in our area and an important area of the country."