Rep. Henry Waxman has represented Los Angeles in Congress for 35 years and now chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. In his new book, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works, the Democrat discusses the hurdles legislators faced in their efforts to expose what tobacco executives knew about the dangers of smoking and what the Bush administration knew in the run-up to the war with Iraq. He spoke with U.S. News this week about the Iraq war and the current battle to enact healthcare reform. Excerpts:
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2007 to 2009, you were able to spotlight a number of issues. What were some of the most satisfying moments for you as chairman?
It illustrated to me that Congress doing oversight is as important as legislation and can often highlight a problem, as was done when we held hearings about steroids and about how sports leagues weren't doing what they needed to do to put a stop to it. It can also simply restore the checks and balances that our Constitution had envisioned to get facts. For example, the Bush administration, which valued secrecy so greatly, had to be forced to be more transparent, open, and accountable, even though they didn't want to be.
Were there any particularly frustrating oversight moments?
In the Bush administration, no scandal was too big for them to ignore. The Republican congressional leadership decided that their job was to be good Republicans first—but they neglected the fact that they were leaders of an independent branch of government that had an oversight role to play. One of the things I wanted to accomplish but couldn't was to get Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before the committee when
she was the head of the National Security Agency. She went along with and supported the idea of going to war with Iraq based on the premise that they had weapons of mass destruction and possibly nuclear weapons. She was the person in charge of the president's foreign policy and went along as well with his statement in the State of the Union address that the basis for the argument to go to war was centered on the fact that Saddam Hussein was trying to get uranium.
And yet the CIA told us that they had informed the administration that these arguments were based on a lie, that the facts were bogus. When [Rice] was asked about it, she said, "Maybe the people in the bowels of the CIA knew about it, but they never told us." And yet her chief of staff had been personally informed by George Tenet, then the head of the CIA. Well, I think she should have been willing to come in and answer questions about these enormous discrepancies. She refused to do it. We did subpoena her, but in order to enforce that subpoena, it would have taken years of litigation in the courts.
What else do you think merits further examination?
Lots of things, from the way we got into the war in Iraq based on false information to the incompetence of the conduct of the war and the mistreatment of prisoners both in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.
Now your committee is spearheading healthcare reform legislation.
People say, "How can you have the richest country in the world, where we spend more money on healthcare than any other country, and yet we have 48 million uninsured and all the insecurity that surrounds insurance for those who do have it?" Even if they have health insurance, they could lose it if they get sick or if they lose their job. And if they have a job, they can almost be forced into bankruptcy even if they are insured. It's impossible to defend the system we have now.
So why is it such a tough sell?
I think we're getting there, but change is not easy. If you look at the Clean Air Act, that was a struggle. Today, though, people take for granted that we have regulations to protect them from toxic air pollutants if they live near an industrial facility. Some day, people will look back and wonder, "Why did this take so long?" People get scared about change, but President Obama has a talent for calming people down and getting them to recognize what's at stake. In healthcare reform, we're not going to use any radical ideas. People can keep the insurance they have if they like, and Medicare will be there for seniors, but then we need to build on that system and make sure it works for everybody.