The back of Representative Henry Waxman's book, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works has quotes from people talking not about the book, but about Henry Waxman. There are quotes describing Waxman as "a famed tightwad with a righteous streak," "the mustache of justice" and "the best argument against term limits."
All true points, if I do say so myself. With Trump's recent talk of "draining the swamp" of government by imposing Congressional term limits, I thought it would be fun to use Representative Waxman as a case study against term limits. And when I say fun, I mean fun for me, the undisputed Number One Fan of former Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman.
Representative Waxman was elected to Congress in 1974 and quickly established himself as a dogged progressive willing to put in years of work and hold an innumerable amount of hearings for the issues he cared about. His work insured that scientists and drug companies had incentives to develop medicines for rare diseases, encouraged the development of generic drugs, created the largest federal funded program for people living with HIV, worked to stop acid rain, and allowed the FDA to regulate tobacco, among many other achievements. He finally retired in 2012, after 38 years in Congress.
In his book, Representative Waxman compares passing legislation to losing weight: both require years committed activity before you can even begin to see results. And he should know. Many of his greatest legislative achievements took years to become a reality. Representative Waxman held the first ever hearings on HIV and AIDS in 1982, but did not pass the Ryan White CARE Act (now the largest federally funded program to help people living with HIV) until 1995. With a ten-year term limit, Waxman would have had to give up his seat two years after his first hearing on HIV. With a twenty year limit, he still would not have had enough time to pass the Ryan White CARE Act.
A term limit would do nothing to make it easier to pass legislation. Big, meaningful legislative reforms take a very long time to pass, because it is hard to create a compromise between 435 voting members of the house, and 100 Senators. Many elected officials spend years with a bill, introducing it anew every year before it finally passes. It takes endless meetings, support from other members, and relationships that can sometimes take a long time to cultivate. In the case of the Ryan White CARE Act, one of Waxman's biggest allies was a Republican Senator Lowell Weicker, and a cordial relationship across party lines (and across different levels of the House) does not form overnight.
Short term limits, particularly one of ten years, would not encourage Representatives to think about long term solutions or consequences. Many bills, when first passed, seem like failures, or like they didn't go far enough. This was the case with Waxman's Orphan Drug Act. No one thought it would be successful. Some thought the tax breaks for companies developing 'orphan drugs" (medicines for rare diseases like Tourette's and Huntington's Disease) were too low.
Democrats thought market exclusivity, which means allowing one company to control the patent for seven years, would lead to companies charging excess profits. And while that does happen occasionally, the legislation also lead to an explosion in drugs to treat rare diseases. Before this act, only 83 drugs for rare diseases were approved. Between 1983, when the act was passed, and 2004 a whopping 1,129 drugs for rare diseases were approved, including such drugs as Abilify, Cialis, and Botox. A bill no one thought would be a success revolutionized the treatment of rare diseases as we know it. Without an eye to the future, and a willingness to wait out the initial criticism, who can say if this bill would have been passed at all?
Some argue that term limits would allow Representatives to focus on the work, rather than ensuring their next election, thereby making our government full of public servants as opposed to power seekers. But what about the people (like Waxman, and so many current elected officials) who are not power seekers, and who really are doing great work? Term limits would hobble them, and curb their ability to make lasting and important changes. And imposing a term limit would not make it that much easier to run for Congress, so instead of having a set cast of power seekers and public servants, we'd have people rotating in and out, with little to no commitment to long-term change, and no way to pass legislation quickly.
Of course, not every Congressperson is Henry Waxman. But there are more Henry Waxman's in Congress than people realize. The government is not the most efficient body, but there are reforms that can be made without kicking out future Waxman's before they have the chance to pass their first bill. Especially when engaged voters can already create term limits by voting people out of office. Elections are in November. Do you know who your Congressperson is?