Q&A: Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) Looks Back on Nearly 40 Years in Congress—and the Unfinished Business of Climate Change Legislation

RepHenryWaxmanJulia Schmalz/Bloomberg

May 7 Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), former chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, will retire at year’s end after nearly 40 years of work on a range of environmental issues, from air pollution to climate change. Waxman, today the committee’s ranking Democrat, spoke to Bloomberg BNA about his greatest disappointment in Congressthe “unfinished” business of getting a U.S. climate bill passed—and why President Barack Obama has little choice but to address the issue on his own in the absence of congressional action.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

BBNA: The [May 6] release of the National Climate Assessment warns of catastrophic impacts, particularly for regions and the U.S. in particular. What’s your sense of what this [report] suggests, going forward?

Waxman: I think this assessment makes clear that climate change is happening, that it’s man-made, and it's causing problems, and affecting every region of this country, whether drought in California or hurricanes in the South, or other catastrophes. And that we really are at a crossroads. We can either listen to the science and do something about it and avoid the worst projections of what can happen, or we can do what the Republicans are doing in the House: ignore the science and offer no plan to even address the problem.

BBNA: One big issue coming up for the fall will be the mid-term [elections]. If the Republicans take over the Senate, it’s assumed you wouldn’t expect to see much action on the climate front. Do you have a different view?

Waxman: I don’t expect Congress as it is presently constituted—or may be after the election if the Republicans take over the Senate—to act. That is why it is so important that the president is acting on his own under existing law to reduce the emissions from power plants, pressing for greater efficiency in our use of energy and [directing] the efforts of this country internationally to reduce the dangers from climate change.

BBNA: The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990—would you consider that your greatest accomplishment in the environmental arena? And as far as unfinished business, would you say that was the climate change bill, which you were able to pass in the House in 2009 but [then] died in the Senate?

Waxman: The Clean Air Act was an enormous accomplishment. It took a 10-year fight to get it enacted and when we did it was bipartisan, and signed by President George H.W. Bush. And it is the strongest environmental law that we have on the books. I am very proud of it. I do think that the unfinished agenda for this country and the most pressing issue for us to deal with is the climate change problem. I was disappointed we couldn’t pass a law through the Senate that we passed [in] the House. But President Obama is going to act on his own, because he’s getting no co-operation from Republicans, who refuse to even have a hearing with scientists, let alone offer an alternative to what the president proposes to do.

BBNA: On the Pallone-Eshoo contest, will there come a time when you will weigh in on that race yourself, or do you see that as something an outgoing ranking member doesn’t address? [Note: Two Democrats are vying to succeed Waxman as the energy panel’s top Democrat in 2015: Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).]

Waxman: This will be an issue decided [by] the people who will be back in Congress after the election, when the [next] Congress convenes. I’m not going to be here. And I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to get involved.


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