Book Review: The Power of Being Right

“Facts are stubborn things.” It’s a quote variably attributed to Mark Twain, John Adams, and the French novelist Alain-Rene Lesage (if Wikipedia serves me). Whatever its origins, it is an apt phrase to describe the theme of Henry Waxman’s new book, “The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works.”

Most books of this genre are notable for their cynicism about Washington, including its supposedly pervasive corruption and the power of money. Set against that backdrop, Waxman, a 34-year veteran of the House of Representatives and one of its most powerful members, must come across as hopelessly na├»ve. He’s not.

In fact, Waxman spends most of the book describing a little known truth about Washington: that it is actually dominated by people who love their country and are trying their best to do the right thing. They may not always be good at it, they may sometimes disagree with one another, and they may choose to score points on each other. But at the end of the day most, or at least enough, are committed public servants dedicated to the common good (or at least wish to be perceived that way) that productive policies get enacted. That’s why moneyed interests so often lose.

Waxman’s book is basically a collection of stories describing such occasions. The stories range from reauthorizing the Clean Air Act, to regulating tobacco, to fighting the petro-chemical industry over pesticides, and more. In each case, Waxman won by researching the issues and marshaling solid evidence. Facts and good policy won the day, if not immediately, then eventually.

In each of these efforts, Waxman was aided by solid staff work, which anyone who works in Washington (I do) knows is critical. Waxman says as much himself (“I have always felt that the key to success in legislation is having the best staff possible”), though the quote is taken from the acknowledgements, not the book itself. Waxman’s staff did investigative research, wrote and released reports, developed relationships with other staff inside agencies and with whistleblowers who leaked them information, and negotiated with other congressional staff to work out the details of complex bills. Waxman actually admonishes himself for “getting ahead” of his staff on an FDA bill, a mistake he says that others usually make to their own detriment.

Waxman doesn’t really make this point, but values are as important as facts. Human beings are complicated because we are capable of selfless acts in pursuit of a greater good. The book describes countless occasions where his efforts were aided by such acts. His campaign against the tobacco industry was aided by people inside leaking confidential memos. His work on drug use in Major League Baseball was helped by players who outed themselves because they felt it was the right thing to do. When the Reagan administration took the wrong position on an environmental or health issue, whistleblowers from inside the agency would leak information that undermined the administration’s case. Even top-level administration officials took major risks, as was the case with C. Everett Koop and AIDS.

The combined power of facts and values have made possible every important advance described in this book — and many, many more. Without them, we would not have the environmental laws that we have today. We would not have consumer laws, or laws providing health insurance for the poor, or any other legislation that pitted powerful, moneyed special interests against the public interest. And yet those laws exist. While not perfect, their very existence is evidence of the power of the public interest and the common good.

This view is not widely shared. Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post and author of “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government,” wrote the review of this book for the Post. In it, Kaiser writes, “Congress has seldom ensured that the public interest prevails over special interests — quite the opposite.” And yet, just a few sentences later, Kaiser concedes that Waxman “managed to push pesticide legislation through the Congress when it was controlled by anti-regulatory Republicans.” I wonder how?

I should acknowledge that I reviewed Kaiser’s own book critically because I disagreed with him on this point. It may seem sophisticated to adopt such cynical views. But anyone who has observed the incredibly long hours put in by dedicated public servants on both sides of the aisle in pursuit of good public policy knows otherwise. They are not all angels, but neither are they all rogues, and good usually does win in the end.

If I have one criticism of Waxman’s book, though, it’s that he fails to sufficiently acknowledge the contribution of public interest groups to the victories he describes (I work for one of them). Legislation like the Clean Air Act, consumer laws, the tobacco deal, and laws providing health care to the poor owe a lot to these groups, but they warrant barely a mention in the book. Waxman’s primary observation of them is that they (we) are a bit too purist, which is actually true in many cases. But we also do a lot to push the ball down the field. Earlier in the book, Waxman talks about the importance of out-organizing the opposition. Public interest groups play an important part in that equation.

Something else worth noting is Waxman’s somewhat dated view of organizing. Earlier in the book, he talks about driving across California in a battered old Buick to organize the state’s Young Democrats in the 1960s. That was a long time ago. These days, a lot of organizing happens online, both among the public interest organizations and also the bloggers. These tools and tactics helped get Barack Obama elected president.

Given that Waxman is now chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and thus a major player in health care reform, he would be well served by renewing his commitment to organizing and coming up to speed on the latest tactics. But then again, his staff can probably help him with that.

Overall, Waxman’s book is refreshing, both for its idealism and its realism. It is not just a tale of how Washington should work, but how it really does.

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