Q&A Waxman Reflects on His Legacy and Prospects for Climate Change Action

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.)

Over a 40-year congressional career, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has been one of the nation's strongest advocates for pollution prevention legislation and climate change action. Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will retire at the end of this year after playing a chief role in the passage of some of the country's foundational environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. In an exclusive interview from his office Dec. 16 with Bloomberg BNA's Anthony Adragna, Waxman discusses why the Environmental Protection Agency's power plant carbon rules are legal, the prospects for an international agreement on climate change and why Congress won't consider climate legislation for the foreseeable future—but why he's optimistic about the future of environmental policy. Waxman says he hasn't yet decided what his career plans are when he leaves office, although he plans to stay in the Washington area. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Bloomberg BNA: Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist moving forward on the issue of climate change?

Waxman: I consider myself an optimist in terms of trying to address the problem, getting something done. I'm a pessimist in terms of the damage that's going to be done and has already been done due to climate change.

But I think—despite fact that the Congress has been unable to act, and the Republicans deny the science and refuse to recognize the existence of climate change—there will be action, especially because of President Obama's commitment to have the United States respond to this problem.

Bloomberg BNA:In terms of President Obama's actions to address climate change, do those go far enough? Do you wish he would have done more, or is he sort of at the limits of what he's able to do?

Waxman: I think he's going to do more. Especially with an international agreement this coming year, he'll have the ability to do a lot more to reduce the pollution that's causing climate change. He's made it a high priority.

I think it's going to be an important part of his legacy. And I think that if he keeps moving forward on this issue, as I expect he will, we will have a genuine response.

Bloomberg BNA: Are you at all concerned that we won't have an international agreement in Paris or that it won't be strong enough? What would you like to see come out of that agreement?

Waxman: I think the fact that we already have an agreement with China is tremendously important. If we had a combination of the United States, China and the European Union, that would account for 55 percent of the emissions that are causing climate change.

I expect other countries will join in as well. So I feel confident that we'll get a major step forward.

Bloomberg BNA: In many decades of legislative accomplishments, does one stick out as your proudest—either on the environment or otherwise?

Waxman: Well, in the area of the environment, the Clean Air Act is the most effective law on the books today. I'm proud of my legislative legacy, and I wouldn't want to choose one proposal over another.

I think it's important to make sure we have the Affordable Care Act, as well as the other bills that I played a role in that expanded health care services. The approach to the Ryan White CARE Act was significant, as well as the regulation of tobacco.

There were big and small bills, but they were all important bills, which represented to me the fact that government can and must play an important role for the American people. I reject those who argue we don't need government.

The Affordable Care Act stands out, obviously, along with the expansions of programs such as the Children's Health Insurance Program, changes in Medicare and Medicaid.

Bloomberg BNA: Is there something that stands out as something you wish you could have completed that you didn't get done?

Waxman: Well, I wish we would have passed the cap and trade bill in 2009. It was a far-reaching proposal that would have been really very worthwhile, but I think a lot of what we wanted to do with that legislation we hope we can see happen in the future.

Bloomberg BNA: Going back to those days, was there ever a time you thought about a different approach to the Waxman-Markey legislation? Making more fundamental changes to the Clean Air Act?

Waxman:Well the cap-and-trade bill, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill, was a way of changing the Clean Air Act in many respects. But after we lost that legislation, I supported the idea of a carbon tax and argued to Republicans that if they wanted to eliminate the deficit, this was a way to get the money to do that.

That was not received well. I joined with former Secretary [of State] George Schultz in saying we ought to have a carbon tax, so we can reduce other taxes, which has been a high priority for Republicans, but they didn't seem interested in doing that either. So I've been open to a lot of different approaches to get to the result we need, and now I'm looking to the administration.

Bloomberg BNA: How far out are we from seeing the ability of a Waxman-Markey type bill of coming back into the discussion?

Waxman: I don't expect Congress to pass anything in the near future. Republicans deny the science. They refuse to acknowledge the problem.
When I first became chairman of the [Energy and Commerce] Committee, I went to [Representative] Joe Barton [R-Texas], who had been chairman when Republicans were in the majority, and I said, “Let's work together on this legislation to deal with the climate problem.” And he said to me, “I don't want to work with you on legislation to solve a problem that I don't think exists.” So it was hard to figure out what do after that. That was an end-of-conversation kind of remark.

I don't think we should expect to have Congress act, but I think there's just a tremendous amount the president has authority to do under existing law, particularly the Clean Air Act but not just the Clean Air Act. There are other laws on the books that can be used to implement the president's Climate Action Plan, including not just what the EPA can do.

Bloomberg BNA: Are there some Republicans behind the scenes who have different attitudes toward climate change?

Waxman: I think so.

Bloomberg BNA: What can be done to create the space for them to speak out on that?

Waxman: I think the American people are going to look with real concern at how Republicans are approaching an issue that they, more and more, see happening all around them. Climate change isn't just a prediction of what could happen in the future. It's happening right now.

From Hurricane Sandy to droughts in the West to fires, there are just so many events that are one after another that make people realize that denying climate change is just putting your head in the sand.

Bloomberg BNA: In terms of EPA's approach to regulating pollution from power plants, there's obviously been criticism that it goes beyond what the Clean Air Act intended. You obviously played a central role in that. Is there any question in your mind that the approach EPA has taken is within the framework, as intended, of that statute?

Waxman:I do believe it's within the letter of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Massachusetts case, required the EPA to act if there was a finding that carbon pollution was a threat to human health and the environment. Even the EPA, under President George W. Bush, made that finding, although President Bush refused to receive it.

But I think it's well within the purview of the Clean Air Act for EPA to act.

Bloomberg BNA: Even to use this authority under Section 111(d) that is very flexible and hasn't been used before?

Waxman: I think it's well within the law and well within EPA's discretion.

Bloomberg BNA: Do you feel Congress has gotten to the point where they can't work together in a bipartisan fashion? Has it gotten worse?

Waxman: It's been very difficult for Congress to work on a bipartisan basis during the time Obama has been president. Almost from the first day he was in office, Republicans opposed everything he had to offer—whether it was a stimulus for the economy, which was so desperately needed.

Or later the regulation of the banks. And even in health care where President Obama basically took Republican ideas that had been suggested by former Senator Bob Dole and others as an alternative to Hillary Clinton's efforts in this area. To get Republicans to oppose something, the fastest way to do that is to say President Obama wants it.

But I don't have any concerns that this is only a temporary matter. I think Republicans have been hindered by the right-wing Tea Party faction that believes compromise is a dirty word, or to work with Democrats is complicit with the enemy. They've paralyzed the Republicans from acting in the Congress. Many of the Republicans who are now in charge will want to get things done, and the only way you can get things done is by working across the aisle.

Bloomberg BNA: Obviously, there's been a long history of bipartisan environmental legislation. In the 2000s, is it possible for us to see such broad sweeping environmental legislation as the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act?

Waxman: I think we will be able to see that again the future, but right now even the Clean Air Act [Amendments], which was passed by over 400 votes in the House and over 90 votes in the Senate and signed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, would not pass the House of Representatives and maybe not even the Senate. But that reflects where we are at the moment, not where we're going to be in the future.

Bloomberg BNA: Do you feel that EPA as an agency has been unfairly attacked? Why has it become such a lightning rod?

Waxman: EPA is a lightning rod because it's the agency that can regulate to protect the environment. It's not new to have environmental protection attacked by industry groups and characterized as a way that would hurt our economy or produce job losses. Those were the claims I heard when I first got here to Congress in 1974, and I've heard ever since. Invariably, these arguments were wrong.

Under the Clean Air Act, our economy has prospered, people have worked hard and gotten jobs, and we've reduced so much of the air pollution that was causing heath problems throughout the nation.

Bloomberg BNA: You mentioned you're not going away from this issue. What do you plan on doing?

Waxman: I am not going away from this issue. I want to be involved. I haven't figured out how yet.


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