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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

For Better or Worse, He's on It

Rep. Henry Waxman knows how to make the GOP squirm. He's the general of an army of investigators who churn out unsparing reports.

July 17, 2006|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just another Tuesday afternoon and the far-flung offices of the WBI -- the Waxman Bureau of Investigation, a.k.a. the self-appointed Inspector General of the World -- are buzzing.

Hunched over a table in the Rayburn House Office Building, close enough to the kitchen to smell the reheated spaghetti, an investigator hunts for signs of corporate misconduct. Two floors down, in a basement cubbyhole, a former MIT scientist is busy discovering that some seniors can do better at Costco than through the new Medicare prescription plan. Up the block, at another outpost, a researcher has spread out Dick Cheney's personal finances to see how the latest GOP tax cuts will benefit administration bluebloods. Nearby, staff lawyers look at clean-air regulations, AIDS funding and whether a Wilshire Boulevard renovation project will make traffic worse.

Meanwhile, back in the main office, legislative aides are finishing up a bill to end global warming. World peace may have to wait until Wednesday.

By most measures, Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman, 66, of Los Angeles ought to be one of the most irrelevant elected officials in Washington. He's been in Washington since 1974, but his party is in the minority. He is an unapologetic liberal in a Capitol dominated by uncompromising conservatives. And his public utterances are so unfailingly partisan that he has little capacity to get cooperation from his Republican colleagues. He also contributes to the toxic political climate that many decry in present-day Washington.

Yet at a time when many of his Democratic colleagues have spent the last decade in a defensive crouch, outmaneuvered by their GOP rivals, Waxman has found another way to have an impact -- going outside normal legislative channels to exert influence on issues he cares about. In the process, he has also made himself into what many Republicans consider the biggest pest east of the Mississippi.

The key to Waxman's unlikely success is this: He has assumed a big chunk of the watchdog role usually filled by the entire Congress, probing deep into government programs and problems to oversee a president and GOP he believes have run amok.

As ranking Democrat on the Government Reform Committee -- the chief oversight body of the House -- Waxman has leveraged every scrap of his party's resources. He has poked and prodded the Bush administration on Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction, on faulty prewar intelligence and on Halliburton's questionable contracts.

He has thrown up roadblocks to protect environmental laws he helped pass when Democrats controlled the Hill, including clean-air and food safety rules. He nettles and needles, firing off blistering letters to agency directors, Army generals, the GOP leadership and the president.

But the most effective weapon in Waxman's arsenal is a staff of high-powered lawyers, investigators and technical experts who churn out a steady stream of penetrating and fact-laden reports. Many find their way into headlines.

The research Waxman's staff generates is so strong and so pointed it gives his GOP colleagues heartburn, including Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, (R-Va.), who chairs the Government Reform Committee.

"Henry Waxman, left to his own devices, is not a welcome sight for Republicans," Davis said.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), complained that Waxman often chose his research targets primarily to get publicity. "There's a big difference between responsible oversight, and ... investigations charades which are merely in search of a headline," he said. "It gets to a point where it's more shtick than substance."

Journalists, advocacy groups and Democratic colleagues who make use of Waxman's research counter that even if his motives are political, the public gains valuable information about issues, such as how the new Medicare drug benefit is working. That, in turn, can affect public opinion and drive public policy.

And should Democrats recapture the House in November, Waxman is in line to chair the oversight committee, which would give him more staff and the authority to issue subpoenas and call hearings on virtually anything relating to industry or government.

Investigative reporters in Washington agree that -- partisan as Waxman is -- his staff research is highly reliable. Chief Counsel Phil Barnett, the final gatekeeper, vets every report the office releases.

The impact of the research is increased by the close relationship members of Waxman's staff maintain with news reporters, especially investigative ones. Phil Schiliro, the congressman's veteran chief of staff, is on a first-name basis with members of most major news organizations in Washington.

Communications Director Karen Lightfoot keeps tabs on what selected reporters are working on.

As a result, without holding a lot of news conferences -- as many longer-winded colleagues do -- Waxman and his staff are able to spread their findings to large audiences.

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