Henry Waxman retires after four decades in Congress

Rep. Waxman (D-West Los Angeles) bids farewell to constituents
Rep. Waxman (D-West Los Angeles) bids farewell to constituents
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Rep. Waxman (D-West Los Angeles) bids farewell to constituents
Henry Waxman and wife Janet congratulate Ted Lieu, who will succeed him representing the 33rd Congressional district
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Rep. Waxman (D-West Los Angeles) bids farewell to constituents
November, 2014
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Rep. Waxman (D-West Los Angeles) bids farewell to constituents
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Rep. Waxman (D-West Los Angeles) bids farewell to constituents
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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When Congress returns to work in January, one familiar face will be missing.

Henry Waxman, the 20 term Democrat from West Los Angeles, is retiring after 40 years in Congress.

Waxman's fingerprints are on some of the most groundbreaking legislation to pass Congress in modern times. He led fights to strengthen safe water standards, create a generic drug market, put nutrition labels on packaged food, and his toughest sell: getting Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act. 

He said he did some of them in the majority and some when Democrats were in the minority, but called all of them worth doing.

Waxman is a veteran of a different era in Congress, when the battle to move legislation forward could take years. 

"It took time," he said, "you just kept on pressing it forward until you had the right bipartisan support and could get the bills passed."

That word "bipartisan" may sound odd coming from a man who is unafraid to be labeled a liberal. But unlike the No Labels movement that recruits newer members like Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) and David Valadao (R-Hanford) and urges them to look for issues they can agree on, Waxman has a different philosophy.

"Look for what is the best that you want to accomplish and start from there, not start from the middle," he told KPCC as he toured with a reporter through his West LA district.

Waxman is a beloved figure in the neighborhood. 

At the JFS Freda Mohr Center on Fairfax, seniors took turns thanking the 74-year-old lawmaker and asking him to reconsider retirement. Waxman promised them he wasn't really going away, just leaving Congress. 

Political scientist John Lawrence was a House staffer back in 1974 when Waxman first arrived on Capitol Hill.  He says there are very few members of Congress who have been as consequential as Henry Waxman.  

Lawrence calls Waxman a master of legislative maneuvering, but also someone who reshaped the role of Congressional oversight. As a committee chairman, he was, as former Republican Senator Alan Simpson once put it, “tougher than a boiled owl.”

Lawrence recalls one iconic moment when Waxman had the presidents of the big tobacco companies standing up before his committee.  He made them raise their hands and swear under oath about the health impacts of tobacco. Those 1994 big tobacco hearings were considered the turning point in America’s love affair with cigarettes.


It took another decade and a half before Waxman’s bill finally put tobacco regulation in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration. 

Waxman’s last crusade ended in defeat. His bill to fight climate change passed the House, but died in the Senate in 2010. Later that same year, the midterm elections returned Waxman to the minority party.

So why leave Congress now?

John Lawrence says Waxman – like his old boss George Miller, who also just retired – took on complex issues with complex solutions, bills that often took years to pass.He says they’ve both been here 40 years, "so the idea of devoting another 3-5 years on some of these big issues is probably a little bit beyond the commitment that they would reasonably want to make."

Back at the Fairfax center, Waxman gave the seniors his own explanation.

"After 40 years in the same job," he said, "I think it’s time to let somebody new take it over."
That somebody new is Ted Lieu, a Democrat who served in the state legislature.

As for Waxman, he’s vague about his future – possibly teaching, working with a law firm – but he promised those seniors he wasn’t going to disappear anytime soon.