Rep. Waxman Opens The Book On Congress
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Even by the standards of his own high-powered career in Congress, this is a big year for Congressman Henry Waxman. Over the years the veteran California Democrat has battled the auto industry to keep clean air standards. He fought the drug companies to make medicines for so-called orphan diseases, ailments that afflict so few people, there's less of a market for them. He got food processors to label their ingredients and baseball players to own up to their drug use.
This year, the same year that he's published a memoir of those and other battles called "The Waxman Report." Representative Waxman was central to house passage of an energy bill. He's chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he is a key player in health care. Welcome to the program.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Thank you very much. Pleased to be with you.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about health care a little bit. You can read a column any day now in the paper saying that a bill to overhaul the health care system is in trouble, disputes over public insurance plans, costs, raising taxes, are you confident there's going to be a bill this year?
Rep. WAXMAN: There's a battle going on for health care reform, but I think we're going to win that battle. There's a clear mandate by the American people when they elected Barack Obama president, that they wanted him to reform the health care system. He said that's what's going to be his top legislative priority. And I'm working very closely with the administration to make it happen.
SIEGEL: Congressman Charles Rangel, the chairman of House Ways & Means, has suggested a tax surcharge on the wealthiest American taxpayers to pay for health care reform - a good idea?
Rep. WAXMAN: It helps pay for the health care reform and it does it in a way that's consistent with the pledge of the president that he would not raise the taxes of people who make $250,000 a year or less. The Senate will probably come up with a different pay for and then in the final version we'll see where we go in the conference.
SIEGEL: You observe at one point in your book that often a bill is decided by things that aren't evident at the beginning. Things evolve during the course of legislation. Are those things happening to health care right now?
Rep. WAXMAN: Things are changing and you never quite know where the focus of attention will end up. We started off with a lot of concern over whether there should be a public plan. And I see less concern, although we still have a lot of argument about it, less concern about the public plan and a lot more concern about how we're going to pay for this, and are we going really hold down health care costs? All legitimate concerns, but issues that we've got to work through, because after we pass health reform, people will look back and say how could it have been that in the United States of America we didn't do this job earlier?
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something personal that happened to you. Just last week you had a scare - you checked into the hospital.
Rep. WAXMAN: Yes.
SIEGEL: And given a clean bill of health and you came out. In that most recent brush with our health care system, what did you see? I mean, you're sitting on a bill that could change the way that we organize health care, and you experienced care in a hospital, what do you learn?
Rep. WAXMAN: I see that in a hospital setting, there are a lot of tests involved in order to find out what has happened and why it happened and how to stop it from occurring again. Those tests are essential. But sometimes, well, you look at the broad population, they're excessive. And so what we need to do is to draw a line that balances the needs for understanding what's happening to people and not doing things that really don't offer a clear improvement in the ability of the medical profession to deal with the problem.
SIEGEL: There's a story you relayed in your book about Senator Dan Coats of Indiana and the bill to fund research on AIDS and to help patients with HIV AIDS. And he, like a lot of conservative Republicans from a conservative state, really were quite reluctant to get involved in this. And in that case, it's the way you name a bill that - and frame an issue - that can bring along a reluctant and critical vote.
Rep. WAXMAN: I was surprised at the development of the legislation dealing with HIV AIDS, that we came to the point in the Senate where Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch, who also is clearly a conservative Republican…
SIEGEL: Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Rep. WAXMAN: Orrin Hatch of Utah, came to the conclusion that one way that helps them get this bill through was to entice Senator Coats, Dan Coats from Indiana, to join in support of the legislation by naming it the Ryan White Act. Ryan White was a young boy from Indiana who was facing enormous amount of discrimination because he was HIV positive and had AIDS.
And people felt sympathetic to him, that just wasn't fair that he should be put into a situation where people thought not that he was the victim, but he was the victimizer because he had a dreaded disease. I think Senator Coats was moved by the fact that the bill was going to be named after Ryan White from his home state of Indiana.
SIEGEL: So, doing that, I mean, do you know, you're going to take flack for naming the bill for - in the parlance of the day, the right kind of AIDS victim and is not a gay man. On the other hand, that's how you get the bill passed.
Rep. WAXMAN: The important thing is to get legislation passed, because that legislation can help so many millions of people that will need that law and it certainly was important to get it through and a fitting tribute to Ryan White, who suffered from the disease and brought home to many people that AIDS did not discriminate, AIDS could affect lots of different people and we needed to fight the disease, not the victims of the disease.
SIEGEL: Chairman Waxman, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Rep. WAXMAN: You're very welcome, thank you.
SIEGEL: Congressman Henry Waxman has represented California's 30th district since the mid 1970s. His new book, written with Joshua Green is called, "The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works."
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