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My Interview With Henry Waxman

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Henry Waxman is one of the most prominent Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives. For over 30 years, Representative Waxman has focused his tenure on health care and environmental issues. As Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he is one of the major players in determining United States energy and environmental policy. In 2007, Representative Waxman served as Chairman of the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform where he investigated instances of abuse in federal power. The most notable investigation pertained to the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq War. Currently, Representative Waxman represents California's 30th district in the 111th United States Congress.

Michael Bendetson: Representative, you are one of the authors of the most extensive efforts to reduce American consumption of energy in decades with the Waxman-Markey Bill. One of the legislations major provisions is the implementation of a cap-and-trade system pertaining to greenhouse gases. Why do you feel a system of cap-and-trade is the best method to attack our energy problem?

Henry Waxman: We are trying to put a ceiling on carbon and other greenhouse gases that cause global warming. As the limit on these gas emissions comes down, we establish the most cost effective way of achieving our goals on energy reduction. Specifically, certain [greenhouse gas] reductions can be quite costly. However there is no reason to have money spent on those reductions upfront, especially when we are developing technology that is more efficient at providing reductions. For example, we hope in the future that we could obtain sufficient amounts of energy from burning coal. Currently, burning coal is a heavy contributor to greenhouse gases. Yet rather than insisting that coal be eliminated as a possible energy source, we give the industry time and resources to develop technology known as carbon sequestration. This technology would make coal burning as environmentally friendly as any other nonpolluting fuel. In the meantime industries will have meet our current caps, but in the long run there will be technology that will make energy reduction easier.

MB: While there appears to be a general consensus that the bill would reduce America's carbon footprints, other concerns have been raised about the legislation. First, environmental groups are apprehensive that around 85% of the pollution permits are being given to businesses free of charge. Second, many Americans are concerned that the Congressional Budget Office reports that a 15% cut in carbon emissions would cost the average American $1,600 a year. How do you respond to these negative charges against your legislation?

HW: The Environmental Protection Agency did an evaluation of the cost to comply with the amount of carbon reductions that would be required under the legislation. They estimate for the average family the cost would amount to no more than that of a postage stamp. Those who have expressed concerns about the fact that some industries particularly in the electricity area will be getting permits for free, talk as if by giving them the permits we do not require them to achieve the reductions. We certainly do expect them to attain the necessary greenhouse gas reductions. The goal is to allow the industries to reduce their carbon consumption without having these businesses pass the price on to the consumer. If we charge for permits, they [businesses] would increase the costs to consumers. The idea of providing for free allowances is not excusing them [industries] from the requirements to reduce carbon emissions, but rather to help the American consumer. Specifically in areas like the Midwest where so much of their energy is derived from coal, these consumers would have to pay much higher prices for energy than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

MB: As Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, you have remained open to all forms of energy including wind, solar, and geothermal technology. Yet you have remained steadfast in your objection to offshore drilling. Why are you against offshore drilling as part of a short-term solution to alleviate the burden of energy prices?

HW: I am not against offshore drilling everywhere, but I think we must be very careful where we allow any drilling. We must be mindful not to permit offshore drilling in areas that would devastate the surrounding environment in areas like Santa Barbara [CA]. However, I think there are some areas where offshore drilling is appropriate, but it is not in our committee's jurisdiction. I am hoping the House Interior Committee will examine this issue. The moratorium on offshore drilling was recently removed, but I think it is important to clarify where we will allow it and where we will not allow it. I am hoping they [Interior Committee] will develop legislation along those lines. We need to look at more production of domestic resources, because a big part of what we are trying to do is become less dependent on foreign oil. In the process of reducing carbon emissions, we can rely more on fuels here in the United States. This domestic energy could come from coal or oil, but more importantly from wind, solar, hydropower, or other renewable sources.

MB: Although the American economy is showing signs of slight improvements, many would agree that the recession is far from over. Several months have passed since President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but where do we go from here? What additional steps do you feel the President and Congress need to take to ensure the security of our economic future?

HW: The legislation that is attempting to deal with the problems of the recession and to prevent it from becoming a depression is twofold. First, we need to stabilize the banks in this country in order to get them lending again. Second, we need the stimulus bill to be fully effective so that it can produce more jobs. As these steps are being implemented, we need to examine what else needs to be done. There maybe a need to pass an additional stimulus bill. However, we will need more time to truly evaluate the effectiveness of the first stimulus bill.

MB: On the topic of health care, President Obama has publicly stated, "The status-quo is broken." While no piece of legislation has been written, ideas have been raised for an individual health insurance mandate and a publicly run health insurance plan. As an ex officio member of the subcommittee on health, what do you feel is the best solution for expanding coverage and reducing costs?

HW: The best solution is one that can pass and meet the standards of President Obama to provide every American with affordable healthcare coverage. There are many ideas that can assist in accomplishing the President's goal. Some suggest providing a single payer system for health care such as extending Medicare for all Americans. Others propose eliminating employee-based coverage. President Obama has set out with a different approach that is politically more feasible. Those who enjoy their own insurance can keep it. Medicare and Medicaid need to be maintained and expanded. Finally, there needs to be a connector where people can choose from a private or public insurance plan. There has been some controversy about a public insurance plan, but I think it is essential for health care reform. A public insurance plan can provide for competition with private insurers, to make sure we keep them honest. We do not want to allow public insurance to squeeze out private insurance, nor do we want the private insurance companies to come to Congress and preclude competition from a public plan.

MB: Over the course of the last decade, you have voiced a strong opinion against the way former President Bush waged the Iraq War. Yet, you were one of 82 Democrats to vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution. What were the reasons behind both your initial vote and your change in heart?

HW: I think the American people and the Congress were misled by this [Bush] Administration to believe there was imminent threat from Saddam Hussein. The truth of matter was that the Administration did not have proper evidence and facts to back up their claims. I voted for the Resolution and I deeply regret it. Even before the War started, I signed on to letters urging the Administration to continue to work with the international community to disarm Saddam Hussein without going to war. Instead, I think the President wanted to go to war no matter what the facts or truths were. I think the War has been a disaster that was entered into under false pretenses and it is a dark stain on our country's history.

MB: Representative, one of the issues that you remain dedicated to is the regulation of the tobacco industry. In 1964, the Surgeon General Leroy Burney announced that there was a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. However, it has taken until 2009 until it appears the first piece of tough regulation will be passed that will allow the FDA greater authority to regulate tobacco. Why has it taken so many years to pass a piece of what appears to be common sense legislation that would save the lives of millions?

HW: I am pleased that we are going to pass this legislation. It's been a number of years that we have been trying to make it into law. At one time the FDA thought it had the authority to regulate tobacco after they learned that nicotine was an addictive drug, but the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision stated that Congress has to act [to regulate tobacco]. It has taken a long time, but I am pleased that Congress is going to act this year. One of the things worth noting is that even without legislation at the federal level, the public attitudes about tobacco have changed dramatically. Most people understand that the cigarette companies have acted deceptively for decades in denying that cigarettes are harmful, insisting that nicotine is not addictive, and claiming that they did not target children. All [of the above] turned out not to be true. The public and Congress have been significantly influenced by solid scientific evidence of the dangers of smoking.

MB: Last month, Speaker Pelosi insisted that the CIA had misled or lied to her with regard to her briefing on water boarding in 2002. However, CIA Director Leon Panetta immediately replied, "CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing the enhanced techniques that had been employed." As a prominent member of the Democratic Party, do you feel Speaker Pelosi owes an apology to the CIA?

HW: No, not at all. I think Speaker Pelosi felt that she was not given the true facts. Now almost a decade later [after the briefing], they [CIA] are stating that they gave her all the information about U.S. interrogation tactics. I have been to CIA briefings and they do not always lay it out clearly. It may not be an intentional deception, but they [CIA] fuzz things up to give you a picture that is not always accurate.

MB: Throughout your career, you have been a staunch proponent of the state of Israel. While former President Bush remained unwavering in his support for Israel, President Obama has taken a different approach. The 44th president has opted for a "mirror approach," as he seems to critique both sides in an attempt to create a stronger dialogue. How do you react to this shift in foreign policy approach?

HW: I think that President Obama has been very clear that he will continue the policy of the United States in being a staunch ally to the state of Israel. As a strong ally of Israel, we need to work with Israel to try to develop a two state solution, so that there can be some end to the war that has gone on since 1948. The only solution would be to have a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. It is hard to see that happening while the Palestinians are engaged in a civil war. The leading faction Hamas is determined to eliminate Israel off the map. We have to use our good offices to try to push for peace and help the parties get there if possible.