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Henry Waxman and What’s Wrong with Congress


Ordinarily, when a man retires from a job after four decades at the age of 75, the reason is self-evident. Not so, apparently, when you’re an American legislator. Thus, the Washington Post has turned over valuable op-ed space to Rep. Henry Waxman to explain, “The reason I’m leaving Congress.”

I announced this past week that I will be retiring after having the honor of serving my Los Angeles constituents in Congress for 40 years.

Immediately, speculation began that I am leaving because I am frustrated with a broken institution.

Again, Waxman turns 75 in September, well ahead of Election Day and months before he’d begin another term. Which would end when he’s 77. But, of course, only his frustration with the institution would explain his leaving.

But the exact opposite is true: I am leaving Congress with my conviction intact that the legislative branch can be a powerful force for good.

The rest of the op-ed is an advertisement for what a fine Congressman Henry Waxman has been over the years. All the struggles he’s valiantly undertaken for the betterment of his fellow man. 

Finally, though, he answers the question. And it’s the obvious answer!

My reason for leaving is simple: Forty years is a long time, far longer than I ever expected to serve. It’s time for me to give someone else a chance, ideally someone young enough to make the same long-term commitment required for real legislative success.

Yes. Let’s give somebody else four decades. It’s only fair.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.


  1. Surreal American says:

    I’m curious if you felt the same way about Strom Thurmond’s years in office.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  2. superdestroyer says:

    Based upon the polarization of the U.S., the gerrymandered districts, and the increase in automatic party voting of individuals, this will become more common. Once someone is an incumbent, that politician will have to be caught in bed with a live child or a dead body to actually be voted out of office. Thus, incumbents will stay in office until the either die (Ted Kennedy), become bored (James Webb), or just want a change (such as Waman or Frank). What very few incumbents will have to worry about in the future is actually being voted out of office due to their own incompetence (Albert Wynn).

    Image how boring politics is going to be in the future when wonks and punidts will have to determine the pecking order of clouts and fixers rather than paying attention to elections, policy proposals, or grass roots movements.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  3. wr says:

    I don’t understand the snark about Waxman. He’s been an important, serious legislator his entire time in the House and has helped the country. You seem to be blasting him for saying he’s leaving because the institution is broken, then quote him as saying exactly the opposite. And his reason for leaving is exactly the one you say is reasonable — and yet you criticize him for that, too.

    I guess he owes you an apology for feeling some pride in his four decades of public service. I suppose we’d be better served with fewer Waxmans who take the job seriously and more of your party — the Huelskamps and Issas whose only interest is making sure nothing ever gets done, and that they can keep sucking up the Koch cash.

    Maybe you’re just grumpy today — but you should be embarassed about this post.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 5

  4. al-Ameda says:

    Yes, why not re-elect Michele Bachmann, Steve King and Louie Gohmert for a nice 40 year chance to continue their efforts to degrade Congress and the body politic?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Surreal American: Yes. I’ve written several blogs over the years about the ones who stay far, far too long.

    @wr: I’m not blasting him for his answer; I’m bemused by the question as to why an old man would leave a job after 40 years. As a general matter, I think that’s far, far too long for anyone to hold on to a seat in Congress.

    Further, I honestly don’t understand why the Post published this. It’s a nothing op-ed. It has next to zero content. I don’t begrudge Waxman pride in his years of service but it’s odd to me that WaPo turned over one of its very few op-ed slots for him to express it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  6. wr says:

    @James Joyner: Because the Post is usually so thoughtful about how it uses the space on its op-ed pages? This is the paper that publishes Jennifer Rubin and Marc Thiessen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  7. James Joyner says:

    @wr: Why it turns over its columns to the people it does is a different question. Rubin, in particular, is an embarrassment.

    But I attended a session this past week with Jackson Diehl, who’s their deputy op-ed editor, who was explaining why it’s so hard for outside contributors to make their op-ed space. Essentially, there are about a dozen spots a week and about 400 contributors vying for those spots. So, they turn down lots of stuff even from people who are big deals.

    Waxman is important enough that he would be given top consideration. But he still ought to have to say something interesting to climb to the top of the heap.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not blasting him for his answer; I’m bemused by the question as to why an old man would leave a job after 40 years. As a general matter, I think that’s far, far too long for anyone to hold on to a seat in Congress.


    His constituents seem happy with his performance, why should they be denied the opportunity of more years of it, if he were willing? (And I hope he enjoys a long, happy and healthy retirement)

    There is something broken about a congress that is generally hated and where incumbents are overwhelmingly re-elected, but limiting the terms simply addresses the most noticeable symptom, and does nothing to solve the underlying problem.

    In fact, it eliminates the only good thing to come out of the situation — experienced congressmen, who understand the process for legislating, and who have learned to run committees and provide oversight.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  9. Kari Q says:

    There is much to be said in favor of keeping people in Congress for decades. We have term limits in California and they have not exactly worked out as their advocates hoped they would. The legislators barely learn their jobs before they are forced to leave, the don’t really know how to legislate, and they don’t have time to learn all they need to know to become knowledgable on any of the topics they deal with. The result is that a lot of legislation is written by lobbyists, who stay longer and know the process far better than any legislator does.

    My Congressman (George Miller) recently announced his retirement after 40 years and I was disappointed to see him go. I would gladly send him back for another term or two or five.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. superdestroyer says:

    @Kari Q:

    If reps cannot understand their job after six months in office, then they probably should never have run for office. Maybe the answer is to simply the system so that citizen representatives can actually legislate instead of having to never vote an incumbent out of office because it takes a decade to learn the job.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  11. al-Ameda says:


    Maybe the answer is to simply the system so that citizen representatives can actually legislate instead of having to never vote an incumbent out of office because it takes a decade to learn the job.

    Here in California, citizens (voters) actually do legislate – through our ballot initiative process. “The People” have quite often shown that they’re just as incompetent as the legislators that they complain about.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  12. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW James, I read your post seemingly exactly as you intended it – bemusement at the reason why pundits have to assume serious disfunction because a 75 year old man wants to retire.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. superdestroyer says:


    The initiative process in California is designed to be a failure. The laws are designed to make it easy to overturn an initiative and the courts in California have been willing to overturn any initiative that the establishment does not like.

    Also, I suspect that as the U.S. becomes a one party state, there will be a push to eliminate initiative and referendum for the states and localities that have it. The clouts and fixers are not going to share power with actual voters. I also suspect that most states will go to a close or top two primary system in order to eliminate the power of subgroups. As the primaries become the real election for almost all offices, the establishment will not want to five independents a chance to influence the process.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  14. Snarky Bastard says:

    @superdestroyer: at my private sector company, the fresh out of college new hire takes 6 months before they’re not a net cost on the department if we’re lucky. Getting the mid-career level switch makes the transition time longer as there is more unlearning and new learning going on.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Kari Q says:


    If reps cannot understand their job after six months in office, then they probably should never have run for office.

    That’s another problem right there. People have this peculiar idea that governing a state (or country) with a complex economic and social makeup should be simple. I think that’s what’s behind all the wailing and gnashing of teeth when a bill is long or involved a great deal of money – people simply don’t understand that building a bridge or managing a drought or any of the other things we need our government to do are very complicated and take knowledge and study and lots of money.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  16. anjin-san says:

    That’s right James. Hardworking, serious, effective, reality based members of Congress like Waxman are the problem – not the batshit crazy members of your party who tell us that government is the problem while they gorge at the public trough.

    That’s it. Absolutely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2