ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Forty years ago in 1974, the country was reeling from the Watergate scandals and the resignation of President Nixon. The Democratic Party, which already held a strong majority in the House of Representatives, picked up almost 50 more seats. In January 1975, when the new House was sworn in, the so-called Watergate class was full of young reformers who brought new energy to Washington.
And one of them was Henry Waxman. He was 35 years old. And today at a still very young age of 74, Congressman Waxman announced that after 20 terms in the House, he will call it a career at the end of this year. Welcome to the program, Congressman.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Why quit so soon?
WAXMAN: Forty years went by so quickly. I thought perhaps maybe I would be in Congress for 20 years and I thought that was a long time. But after 40 years, I think it's time for somebody new, somebody younger to come in and take on the fight here in Congress. And if I'm going to transition to a life outside of Congress, I think this is a good time to do it.
SIEGEL: I'm going to remind people listening that during this biblical span of time that you've been in the House, you're the man who made the tobacco company CEOs swear under oath that nicotine was not addictive. You championed labels that tell us what the nutritional value of food is, clean water, clean air, Medicare, Medicaid, treatment for people with HIV/AIDS. And you also investigated performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. For you, if you had to be remembered for one achievement in Congress, what would it be?
WAXMAN: I don't want to be remembered for any one achievement. They all are so important. High-profile issues have been the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water law. In the health area, we've expanded health care for low-income people and the Affordable Care Act, which, for the first time, will mean that millions can get health insurance, notwithstanding the fact they have pre-existing medical conditions or can't afford it because will get some tax subsidies to help them pay for it. Those are the major ones.
But when people can control their diet and see the nutritional label before they purchase a product, that's important. People take it for granted but that resulted from a long fight. And the HIV/AIDS bill took us over a decade because Senator Jesse Helms kept on trying to stop it. He said if we pass something to help people with HIV/AIDS, we're going to only encourage more gay sex and intravenous drug use, which, of course, was absurd.
SIEGEL: Thinking back on all these years in the House, what for you is the biggest piece of unfinished business? What's the legislation that you most would've wanted to see that you haven't seen?
WAXMAN: I regret that we have not passed legislation to deal with the climate change and the energy policy that would lead to lower greenhouse gas pollution. This is a genuine threat and yet, the Republicans in the House refuse to hear from the scientists, deny the science, and go to bat for the oil, gas, and coal industry as if it didn't make any difference. If there's a 10 percent chance that the scientists are right, why would take the risk that we're going to pollute the only atmosphere that we share on this planet to the point where we're going to face terrible catastrophic consequences? And we're seeing it now with all these climate problems.
SIEGEL: Congressman Waxman, I want to ask you a little bit about life in the House. For your first 10 terms, the Democrats were the majority, then the Republicans took over. It swung back a couple of times since. How different is it to be a member of the House in the majority party and a member of the House, as you are now, in the minority?
WAXMAN: I've been in the House in the majority and in the minority, and I could tell you without question it's better to be in the majority.
SIEGEL: How much better?
WAXMAN: A lot better because you can initiate the agenda. You can focus on the issues that you want to highlight and try to rally support for legislation or at least hold hearings to focus attention on a problem, which that in and of itself helps resolve some of these problems that you bring out. So there are opportunities to work in the minority, and I've always seized them. But there are, of course, even more when you can say I want to talk about AIDS, I want to talk about climate change, or I want to see what we can do to make sure that children get health care. Those are issues that I've always fought for in the past and if you can call the hearings or focus the attention on it, you can move that agenda.
SIEGEL: Congressman Henry Waxman of California, thanks for talking with us.
WAXMAN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Congressman Waxman, after 20 terms - 40 years - in the House of Representatives, will retire at the end of this year.