Henry Waxman served 40 years as a Democratic Congressman for Los Angeles. From 1975 to 2015, he carved a memorable legacy in health care. This first came as chairman for 16 years of the House Subcommittee on Health & Environment and then as chairman of the overall Commerce & Energy Committee. He also oversaw the famous 1994 hearing at which seven tobacco company CEOs swore under other that nicotine was not addictive.
Serving as bookends on his formative career were the post-Watergate reforms at the start of his career and the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United ruling toward the end. In between, Waxman also contributed to today’s fundraising system by creating the first “leadership PAC,” which later morphed into what critics call legal slush funds. Here’s an edited version of him sharing some of that history. Today he works with his son as the PR firm Waxman Strategies.
SACTO POLITICO: Take me back to the late 1970s. What inspired you to create the first Leadership PAC?
Henry Waxman: When I was elected to Congress in 1974, I came from a very secure Democratic district and didn’t have to worry about an election fight every two years. I could raise money and have more than I needed for my own campaign. So I carried on a tradition from my days in the California Legislature of donating from my campaign committee to Democrats who were either running to enter Congress or trying to hold onto their seats.
In Congress back then, I could contribute $1,000 maximum from my campaign committee, but I saw that PACs [political action committees] could give up to $5,000. In Congress, nobody had ever created their own PAC. I organized the PAC and raised money for the PAC. Then to help struggling Democratic candidates, I could give up to $5,000 from the PAC and $1,000 from the campaign committee, and double that for the primary and the general elections.
And I did that just to help people out. I wanted [Democrats] to win as many seats as possible, and can you believe I was attacked for that? I was criticized, including in a New York Times editorial.
S/P: Was this because your leadership PAC was seen as an attack on the seniority system and would give you a possible advantage over more senior members in elections within your caucus for committee chairmanships?
Waxman: Yes. After a term or two [in Congress], the chairmanship of a subcommittee opened up in 1979 because a highly respected chairman decided to retire. There were a number of more senior possible candidates for that chair, but I decided I would run for it.
At the time, I was also a member of the House Steering and Policy Committee, and one of my Democratic colleagues openly criticized me for running out of seniority and for having given PAC money to members who were going to vote. I said, “I want to help Democrats get elected and stay in the Congress, and I don’t know why I should be criticized for that.” It was a sharp exchange between the two of us. It had no impact on the vote, and I won. I became chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, where I did most of my legislative work for, I think, 16 years, after which I became chairman of the whole committee.
S/P: Before you launched your PAC, I find it interesting you first sought an advisory ruling from the Federal Election Commission. Why didn’t you just create it – like would probably happen today – then see what the FEC said later and maybe pay a small fine if they disapproved?
Waxman: That never crossed my mind. In my career in politics, I always wanted to follow the rules very carefully. I had a safe seat, and I thought the only way I would become vulnerable was if I was seen breaking rules. I always tried to be careful and avoid doing anything that violated the rules or was embarrassing. That’s very different from today.
Trump is the best example, but he’s not alone. A lot of them aren’t embarrassed nowadays. Look at this guy [Matt Gaetz] in Florida who is protesting his sex life.
S/P: How did the FEC respond to your request?
Waxman: I don’t remember any issues. We went to the FEC and went through all of the rules and regulations. We named it the “L.A. PAC.” I think I wanted to originally use my name and call it a “Wax PAC,” but the FEC said I couldn’t name it after myself. They had a lot of arbitrary rules, but if you think back to that time, it was quaint.
S/P: FEC records show your L.A. PAC raised $106,000 that first cycle. You donated to 29 different candidates, including the 1980 Ted Kennedy for President campaign. Soon after, more incumbents followed your lead, correct?
Waxman: Everyone saw what I did. They said, “Well, that’s a great idea. We can help our colleagues.” Democrats created leadership PACs. Republicans did it. It became quite routine. So it wasn’t so shocking that I had a leadership PAC, except that I was the first.
But whatever the case, we were giving away money. People were happy to get it. I gave every two years. I probably spent more money on losing candidates than anyone else in Congress. But I was able to help some candidates who ended up making a big difference in Congress.
S/P: The use of Leadership PACs would explode and morph over time. Last election cycle there were 624 leadership PACs operated – well more than the total number of House and Senate seats – funded largely through corporate donations. About half of the money spent goes for purposes other than to support other candidates, such as to pay for expensive restaurants, hotels and luxury luxury travel. This has caused critics to call them legal slush funds. Did you foresee any of this?
Waxman: I wasn’t aware the rules would be so much looser for using PAC money for things that you couldn’t use your campaign dollars for. Later at one point, Jesse Jackson Jr. was convicted of misusing campaign money for personal expenses. He even served some time in prison, and I was told if he had run that all through his leadership PAC, he never would have been convicted.
I never thought of that. I was pretty straight about why I did it and what I used it for. I didn’t have a slush fund. I tried to be very careful using expenditures from either committee within the acceptability of the law.
S/P: Campaign financing is far more complex today than when you joined Congress. Money moves between so many entities: the campaign committees, outside PACs, leadership PACs, joint venture PACs, Super PACs, independent expenditures, joint fundraising committees, party committees. One analogy is tracking campaign money is now like trying to untangle a network of corporate offshore shell companies. What is your opinion?
WAXMAN: I think that is apt. You don’t really know where the money is coming from, and there is no clear disclosure. Money can go from one group to another group and get money laundered in an independent expenditure. It can be coming from anywhere.
I think [campaign fundraising] is very much out of control, and it is corrupting. Most of the money is not being spent by the candidates. It is being spent by outside groups who can use money that the candidates raise and use for their campaigns. Then they are not supposed to coordinate with the candidate, but there is a coordination that goes on. Then an independent expenditure slams a candidate at the end of a campaign, and it is just overwhelming.
S/P: Given the current conservative make-up of the Supreme Court and the reluctance of Congress to reform a campaign system that benefits incumbents, does it seem a Constitutional Amendment is our best and only option?
Waxman: I would certainly support a constitutional amendment. On the other hand, it is impossible to contemplate [passing] a constitutional amendment. The other thing that would help is to at least require the disclosure of the contributors. When you have independent expenditures from independent groups, I don’t think you ever know who contributed.
Plus if you’re a candidate, you might think you are doing well. Your campaign is pretty darn respectable. Voters seem to be leaning your direction and then – wham – all this money comes crashing down on you at the end. That’s how muddy the campaign disclosure laws are. We could change that in Congress.
S/P: After you retired in 2015, you joined your son’s D.C. public relations firm. Was that always the plan?
No. I thought I could go in and become a lawyer in Washington and share my wise, sage advice with clients who wanted some suggestions. But what happened when I went to law firms, they wanted to know if I would lobby for their current clients and what new clients would I bring in. I said I thought I could bring in some clients that I have worked with. They’d tell me, “We wouldn’t want to represent those clients. Our clients wouldn’t like us to represent those clients.”
So I said this is ridiculous. After a career fighting for progressive public-interest issues, I didn’t want to be in the position that I would trade all that and use it to help the other side on these issues. My son had just started his own public relations business, and he said come and work with me. There is nothing wrong with lobbying. I just won’t lobby for people whose cause I don’t believe in.