Mr. Waxman leaves Washington

After 40 years in D.C., Henry Waxman packs it in at the House, frustrated but optimistic

It was a Republican who once paid Democrat Henry Waxman the rough compliment of being "tougher than a boiled owl." Many of the big things Waxman helped to make into law in his four decades in Congress took bipartisan work, the kind that has all but disappeared in Washington: tobacco regulation, easier access to generic drugs, increased food labeling and safety, cleaner air and water, AIDS healthcare and Obamacare. But that's not why Waxman — a vastly influential legislator and among the last of Congress' 1974 "Watergate baby" generation — is retiring. He figures he has a lot of tread left on his tires, but he wants to drive down roads other than the ones leading to Capitol Hill.

What's at the heart of the public's low regard for Congress?

The public is justified in feeling contempt for Congress. We have had a Republican majority dominated by its extreme right wing that argues that even talking to Democrats is like complicity with the enemy. That mindset is antithetical to the idea that underlies representative democracy. You cannot get everything your own way. You always have to be willing to compromise.

Have any of your Republican colleagues told you they'd get politically crucified if they compromised?

My longtime Republican colleagues may not say it quite that way, but they're embarrassed that they cannot reach compromises. The Republicans have to fix it, and they've been having a civil war.

The business community is outraged that the Republican party, which has always been the party of business, seems more interested in some right-wing ideology rather than representing the best interests of the country as the business community sees it, to grow and provide jobs.

Can Congress fix Congress?

I have confidence that Congress is going to get straightened out. Maybe the addition of more Republicans in the House is going to help Speaker [John] Boehner make compromises [because] extremists in the Republican Party will be outvoted. The Republicans have a spotlight on them now; they have control of the House and Senate. They can't say Harry Reid stopped them from doing things. They can't say no to everything. They said no to everything President Obama wanted. They thought that was the way to bring him down. They were rewarded in this last election, but they're not going to be rewarded in the future if they refuse to do things. And they can't do it without doing it on a bipartisan basis.

If the Supreme Court finds a constitutional flaw in the Obamacare law, will Congress be likely to fix it?

There's never been a complicated piece of legislation that passed Congress without a follow-up cleanup bill to remedy some things. It's been impossible to do anything along those lines because the only thing Republicans want on the healthcare bill is to repeal it, and that's a non-starter. I thought it was an overreach that the Supreme Court took the case.

On immigration, Republicans say the president overreached his authority. You're a member of the body whose power he is supposedly trampling on. What do you think?

The president is clearly within his constitutional rights to exercise enforcement discretion. He's acknowledged he can't change the law by himself, he needs Congress to act, but if Congress is not going to act, he doesn't have to deport millions of people. Where an undocumented immigrant committed a crime, those are the people we want to deport first, but you can't suddenly deport 10 million people — it's just not going to happen. The president's using his enforcement discretion to delineate groups that should be told that they're a very low priority for federal action.

Climate change agreements have encountered resistance in Congress, too.

Climate change is the greatest threat facing our world right now. It's irresponsible for us not to take action. But since George W. Bush was president, the position we've had is that we're not going to do anything unless other countries do, and other countries say if we're not going to accept it, why should they?

I'm appalled at the science denial of the Republicans, their constant support for oil and coal industries, as if they can pretend the threat is different from what it really is. Republicans dismiss it out of hand if it comes to something their big campaign contributors don't want, as if it were just another political opinion. The Clean Air Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress, signed by President George H.W. Bush. If we put that bill on the House floor right now, the Republicans would defeat it.

What did you think about the release of the so-called torture report?

Sen. Feinstein did us a great service by putting that report out. Knowing the truth helps us even when it's embarrassing, because that's the way we can get things changed.

Your Uncle Al ran a Los Angeles newspaper that was one of the few that opposed the internment of Japanese Americans. You're concerned about what's happening to newspapers' role as civic institutions.

Nothing's more important than our 1st Amendment rights. I've expressed concern recently about how the L.A. Times would survive [because] Tribune was spinning [its newspapers] off. I think the final package was most helpful for the L.A. Times, [more] than it would have been otherwise. I also strongly support net neutrality, [so that] providers of content that may not have a lot of money [will not] have a harder time succeeding.

In 1985, you orchestrated a ban on federal funding for extending the Red Line subway after a methane explosion. In 2006 you got the ban repealed. Do you wish you had done that sooner?

I was willing to act sooner but the MTA didn't want us to because it didn't have enough funds to do the drilling [anyway]. It wasn't until Mayor Villaraigosa pressed the issue and we had [Measure R] for local money, which I strongly supported. I said, "Let's get a scientific advisory committee to look at whether we are facing a grave danger." The committee said we have the technology to drill safely, and I moved quickly.

You can ride the subway when you return, right?

I'll be dividing my time. My children and grandchildren are in the Washington area, but I'm a lifelong Angeleno and I want to come home. I'll be coming back as often as I can.

What are you going to do? And why retire now?

My biological clock is ticking and I want to do other things. If I'd stayed in Congress — I'm confident I would have won reelection — I wouldn't be able to do anything else. I don't want to work that hard! I'm getting to an age where a Democratic administration could offer me a position I would want that wouldn't require service by me day and night.

I would like to work on the issues I have cared about. I'd like to do some teaching. I'd like to be on some corporate and nonprofit boards. I'm getting speaking invitations for more of a fee than I could ever have imagined — more than I could ever have accepted under House ethics rules. Those are the possibilities.

You and several other California congressmen retiring recently take decades of seniority with you. Will it hurt the state?

I wouldn't reach that conclusion. When we have a good case to make, people will press it. We have two senior senators, and [Republican] congressman [Kevin] McCarthy is majority leader.

When we had redistricting by the [citizens] commission, I was uneasy, but I thought they did a very good, fair job. The redistricting helped Democrats, but it's cost us some of the most powerful people on both sides of the aisle. But the people we're losing [include] those to whom it makes sense to step aside and let someone else do the job.

The ascendant conservative belief is, as Ronald Reagan said, "Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem."

It's a mistaken notion, and I don't think it's the view of most Americans. Ask people whether they want to give up their Social Security or Medicare, and they don't. Most agree we should have more efficient expenditures on the defense side, but they think government has to be there for defense of the nation. Most people understand that any decent society has to protect people who are disadvantaged, that we have to have a support system. I believe in government. There's no other strong way we can accomplish the goals for the broad public interest.

President Nixon proposed a kind of guaranteed annual income to replace welfare.

President Nixon wouldn't fit into that Republican view of shrinking government. He expanded government.

Why don't people connect the services they get with government. They say, for example, "Don't let the government get hold of my Medicare"?

A lot of people have heard the propaganda over and over again. They're basically against things that help low-income people, and a lot of low income people are minorities, African American and Hispanic.

You do sound frustrated.

I don't want to deny my frustration with Congress, but even when you're in the minority, you can still get legislation passed. You have to persevere.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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