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Our (and his) man in the House

By Frank Gruber

Sometimes local columnists get lucky, and a local story becomes a national story, and if we're especially lucky the story is important (e.g., not Britney Spears at a pet store) and not bad news (e.g., not a tragedy).

We have one ongoing local story here in Santa Monica that is both important and the opposite of tragic. That story is called, "Henry Waxman, our man in the House."

True, Santa Monica shares Congressman Waxman with the rest of the Westside and parts of the Valley, and the L.A. Times typically puts "(D-Beverly Hills)" after his name (talk about unfair! Santa Monica has more than twice the population of Beverly Hills), but we don't have to be selfish.

After all, it's been exciting to have a representative in Congress who is well known to everyone who pays attention to politics. Especially when, as I do, you have many liberal friends and relatives around the country, because Rep. Waxman is a hero to them for all the progressive legislation he has pushed through Congress, even during those dark years -- most of his career -- when the Democrats didn't control Congress and/or the White House.

Rep. Waxman, as chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee since the Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 election, was the sharpest Congressional thorn in the side of President Bush, holding hearing after hearing investigating various travesties.

Modestly I try to fight it, but when I mention to my friends and relatives that Rep. Waxman is my representative in Congress, can I help it if some of the luster rubs off?

Last week Rep. Waxman was at the center of a big political story, when he took over the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee by artfully nudging aside the fabled John Dingell, who had been the top Democrat on the committee for 28 years. Rep. Dingell, now 82 and in February set to become the longest serving member of the House of Representatives in history, will become Chairman Emeritus.

After years in the opposition wilderness, Rep. Waxman will now have the opportunity to play a major positive role as the Democrats, in control of both the White House and Capitol Hill for the first time since the first two years of the Clinton administration, try to legislate the change that President-elect Obama promised during the campaign. The Energy and Commerce committee oversees legislation on key elements of the Obama administration's agenda, including energy, climate change and healthcare.

Of course, thinking locally, I am now wishing that Rep. Waxman was a little less a symbol of rectitude and perhaps more of a typical localist politician, and that he might be willing to do some of the horse-trading for the benefit of his district that powerful representatives are often known for.

For instance, he might use his clout to direct a few chunks of the infrastructure money that is sure soon to come out of Washington toward transit projects here, such as the extension of the Wilshire Boulevard subway to Westwood, or the dreamed of extensions of the subway to Santa Monica or from Hollywood to the Westside under Santa Monica Boulevard.

Rep. Waxman shouldn't feel embarrassed about it -- there can hardly be any transit projects in the country that offer better value for the money invested than these would, and with the passage of Meas. R, we voters of Los Angeles County have just voted to raise our sales taxes to pay our share.

But the story of Rep. Waxman's overthrowing of Rep. Dingell has even deeper significance. It shows that the Democrats are serious about governing.

Let's go back to 1993, the last time a Democratic president was elected and came to Washington with Democratic majorities in Congress.

Only two years later, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America" had swept the Democrats out, and they would not win control both houses of Congress again until 2006.

The then inexperienced Pres. Clinton must take some of the blame, as he became president not knowing how to do business in Washington. But the Democrats in Congress brought on much of the disaster themselves.

Does the name Dan Rostenkowski ring a bell? He was the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, certainly as powerful as Rep. Dingell ever was. He was expected to lead the battle in Congress to pass the Clinton healthcare plan.

Instead, Rep. Rostenkowski became the poster child for Congressional arrogance and corruption; remember the House post office? After being indicted, he had to resign his leadership positions. Later he lost a bid for reelection and pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges. The Clinton healthcare plan never came up for a vote.

In a strange reminder of those days, last week President-elect Obama apparently chose Eric Holder to become Attorney General; it was Mr. Holder who, as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, prosecuted Rep. Rostenkowski.

I don't mean to imply that Rep. Dingell has Rostenkoski-like legal or ethical problems, and on many issues -- such as healthcare -- he has been a champion of progressive issues. Rep. Dingel is, however, an "old style" politician who has often used the power he has by virtue of his seniority not to advance broad goals of the Democratic Party but to serve the interests of specific constituents -- in his case, the automobile industry.

Replacing him with Rep. Waxman is a sign that the Democratic Caucus sees the old system of congressional satrapies as an impediment to accomplishing the goals of the party.

While the President-elect and his people, as well as the leadership of the House, were officially neutral between Dingell and Waxman, for the House Democrats to violate seniority by voting for Rep. Waxman there had to have been the sense among them that they were doing what the incoming administration and Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted.

I doubt that it's a coincidence that the vote for Rep. Waxman came after President-elect Obama chose Phil Schiliro, the congressman's former chief of staff, to be the new administration's liaison to Congress.

I'm thinking that come January, we in Santa Monica and President Obama will share something:

The same man in the House.




True, Santa Monica shares Congressman Waxman with
the rest of the Westside and parts of the Valley, and the L.A.



After years in the opposition wilderness, Rep.
Waxman will now have the opportunity to play a
major positive role as the Democrats,...


Does the name Dan Rostenkowski ring a bell?



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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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