Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Waxman Report: A Testament to the Public Interest

Today, I went to see Henry Waxman speak at a Politics & Prose event at the Historic Sixth & I Synagogue downtown. He was speaking about his new book, entitled The Waxman Report, in which he describes the inner workings of Congress: how true reform is achieved.

Does the name Waxman sound familiar? It should. He's the chairman of Energy and Commerce in the House and one of the champions behind ACES (and a long defender of the public interest).

Henry Waxman has represented Los Angeles since 1975, and with 34 years under his belt, he had a lot of knowledge to impart, and I had ready ears to take it all in (and now ready typing fingers to share it with you.)

The best way to begin (my teaser for the rest) is his opening quote: "It has been my long-held belief that government can play a very positive role in millions of people's lives." Waxman, you have made this true.

Waxman's thesis goes against the strain of popular rhetoric begun in the Reagan years that whenever the government touches something, it is doomed to failure. Reagan was of the government was not the solution, but the problem. To Reagan then (and to the right even today), the myth that the government can do nothing right is a deeply held belief.

However, the government has often achieved great things for the public interest--many of which we now take for granted.

Do you have a snack by you right now while you're reading this? Maybe a beverage? Turn it around to read the nutrition label. You can see the calories, the sugar, the fat, the sodium, the nutrients, the ingredients, etc. You know that because of legislation that only came about after a long, arduous struggle with food manufacturers claiming that such labeling would put them out of business. Changing labels--oh the costs! And consumers won't even understand them! Well, many consumers do, and if we are to solve the obesity crisis of today, we need to sharpen our vision for such labels.

Here's another thing you probably take for granted. Think of the last time you were on an airplane. There was no one smoking, was there? Congress took up an "experiment" to ban smoking on planes--tested for two years only on trips of less than 2 hours, and this legislation only passed by one vote. That's right: ONE vote. (Three after it finally got through and some people wanted to be with the winners). Opponents decried the idea that smokers would have to spend so long without cigarettes and suggested just making separate sections on the plane--as if smoke respected boundaries. But the public interest won, the air was made cleaner, we became healthier, and now you may see snakes on a plane, but not smoke. (Sorry, I had to put the bad movie reference in there).

The main issues he discussed were the following:
1) Tobacco Reform: A fight against corporate misinformation and the pollution of the air (Sound familiar?)
2) Ryan White Act (HIV/AIDS Policy)
3) Access to drugs for rare diseases
4) Clean Air Act: A long, grueling fight of ten years but a success for the public interest in the end (Just think what would have happened otherwise. Reagan and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) wanted to "eviscerate" all standards for air pollution and allow auto companies to make cars that would produce emissions twice as large as they are.)

Waxman's talk was a refreshing dose in optimistic public interst liberalism. When asked about he origins of his belief in the positive change the government could achieve, he spoke of his parents, who idolized FDR for his use of the goverment to help people. Waxman laid out the two founding principles of his political philosophy:
1) He believes in ensuring the opportunity for every person to achieve his maximum potential.
2) There are going to be those with luck and talent who will be able to have great success, and there will be those without either who will struggle; however, the government's job is to provide a safety net for those individuals and to respect the DIGNITY of the human being.

When answering someone's question about problems with the military-industrial complex, he presented two important principles for achieving successful reform/championing your cause:
1) Figure out who the true enemies are. Do not assume your enemies, do not overstate your enemies, and try to build coalitions.
2) Individuals CAN make a difference. Try to become an expert in YOUR issue, and you will go far. (He gave a great example about Al Gore here.)

And last but not least, with regard to the legislation mentioned above, he noted how we reflect on many of those things now and can't even fathom that it was otherwise. One day, it will be the same for the reforms for which we are working today. Twenty years from now, your kids will ask you, "There was really a time when....?"

So, take a deep breath of fresh, clean air (a public good Waxman's worked to protect), and get energized for the fall.

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