Henry Waxman: “Legislative Genius” or Corrupt Crony Capitalist?

George_Bush_signs_the_Federal_Funding_Accountability_and_Transparency_Act_of_2006President Obama described his fellow Democrat, who just announced his retirement after four decades in Congress, as “one of the most accomplished legislators of his or any era.” The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson calls him a ” legislative genius” who “decisively consigned the Republican right’s favored ideology—libertarianism—to history’s dustbin.” He did so, Meyerson went on, by proposing “common sense” laws. “Who could be against “ Waxman?

In order to answer this question, one must look at what he actually did. One of the reasons that Waxman was so powerful was that he operated behind the scenes. Few people outside of his district ever heard about him. He was the acknowledged master of underhanded legislative tricks, and was especially skilled at writing amendments that not even a lawyer could understand and then slipping them into unrelated bills when nobody was watching.

For example, he drafted a bill written in no known human language that was intended to restrict the sale of dietary supplements, a longtime crusade of his. He then waited until House and Senate were about to reconcile their massive Wall Street reform bills and at the last moment dropped in his supplement bill posing as an amendment to the finance bill. Fortunately the totally unrelated amendment was discovered just before one of Waxman’s famous all night conference committee meetings, and after heated discussion was rejected by the other conferees.

The odd part of this story is that Waxman’s district, which included part of Hollywood, must have teemed with health food stores selling dietary supplements. It is doubtful that many of the voters supporting him even knew about this and similar behind-the-scenes gambits.

On another occasion, Waxman stopped the progress of legislation he didn’t like by offering 600 amendments. The paperwork was wheeled into the House Energy and Commerce committee room in shopping carts.

The Congressman knew how to raise money from corporate and other special interests, who feared him, and since he was in a safe district himself, he could spread his money among colleagues, thereby garnering support for his own bills. Each bill he introduced raised more money for him, either from special interests supporting it, or interests who were afraid to cross him.

In many cases, what Waxman actually got from his many successful bills was unintended. For example, he succeeded in mandating that either an additive MBTE or ethanol be added to gasoline. It later developed that MBTE contaminated groundwater and that ethanol raised the price of corn and other grains without helping the environment.

The congressman deemed himself a staunch environmentalist but passed a clean energy bill that was eventually supported by coal companies and opposed by Greenpeace before eventual defeat in the Senate. When he decided that toys needed to be safer, he passed a bill that put small and artisanal toymakers out of business, which mainly helped giant corporations.

Waxman continued to think of himself as a defender of the “little guy” against big special interests. But how then did he justify imposing 10 year jail terms and massive fines on small farmers and organic farm producers who violated even minor (and often vague) FDA record keeping or other administrative regulations, a provision of the House’s version of the Food Safety Act? Or the large fees small farmers would pay as they were swept up in the net of FDA regulation for the first time, fees high enough to put many of them out of business? Fortunately, the Senate said no to this provision of the bill.

Helping the “little guy” invariably meant for Waxman increasing government regulation. But this more often than not just opened the door to crony capitalism.

For example, he not only wanted more federal control of dietary supplements. He wanted more federal control of drugs as well. His solution, incorporated in a successful bill, was to charge drug companies for the costs of the Food and Drug Administration. The totally predictable result has been that FDA employees increasingly think of themselves as working for drug companies.

It seems likely that Waxman arrived in Washington all those years ago intent on serving the public good. But, like many progressives, he failed to understand one basic truth. The more government gets involved in the private economy, the more government tries to substitute its own rules and regulations for the market system, the more corruption results.

Waxman himself once said that “government should act as a referee so that people play fairly.” If only he had meant it. Obamacare, which Waxman helped create, was not refereeing the medical system; it was a federal takeover, and it is causing more of the negative unintended consequences that we have come to expect from his legislation.

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