Funnyman Al Franken is so politically hip, he knows how to crack Henry Waxman jokes.
In a gag speech here a few years back, Franken noted that tobacco-industry scourge Waxman admitted to smoking a cigarette in his youth, "but he didn't inhale."
What's no joke is that Waxman — one of the most liberal members of the House and an acknowledged master of enacting laws to expand the government — could be just months away from fulfilling a career ambition by becoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That panel oversees the cable, broadcasting, satellite and telecommunications industries, and also keeps an eye on the Federal Communications Commission.
Waxman, the 62-year-old California Democrat, was elected in 1974 along with a wave of other young Democrats who sought to clean up Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
After 27 years in the House, the Energy and Commerce member is now ranked just one seat away from the chairmanship.
DINGELL IN WAY
Stationed between him and the chairmanship is 75-year-old Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who captured his suburban Detroit seat in 1955.
Ordinarily, Dingell is a shoo-in for re-election, but this year is different. As a result of redistricting, Dingell is locked in a primary battle with a fellow Democrat, Rep. Lynn Rivers. The primary date is Aug. 6.
If Rivers beats Dingell — and Democrats regain control of the House in the November elections — Waxman, who holds a safer seat, would seize the Energy and Commerce gavel from Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Thus, a pro-government progressive would supplant a friend of free markets.
"There is no doubt that Henry is closer than he has ever been to being chairman," said American Enterprise Institute political scholar Norman Ornstein.
Although Rivers is no pushover, Dingell is expected to pull out a victory, Ornstein said.
But Ornstein said Rivers would have the funds to stage an upset. Rivers, 45, is pro-choice on abortion and favors gun control. Dingell, by contrast, is an abortion opponent and a former board member of the National Rifle Association.
"It could happen," said Ornstein of a possible Dingell loss. "He's the favorite. But having said that, this is the first significant race obviously in a very, very long time for him.
"It's a different district, to some degree, and he's running against an incumbent. That throws in factors we haven't seen before."
If the House elections were held today, Republicans — who hold a narrow six-seat edge — would retain control, Ornstein predicted.
"But the election isn't being held today," he said. "All you need is a tiny wind blowing to make a difference in six seats. Six out of 435 is nothing."
The Democrats have history on their side. Every president except Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 has seen the opposing party gain at least eight House seats in the first midterm election.
COULD SHAKE IT UP
Waxman is indeed two "ifs" away from being Energy and Commerce chairman, but in the scheme of things, those "ifs" aren't very big.
As Energy and Commerce chairman, Waxman "would be a sea change," said one cable lobbyist. While Tauzin and Dingell backed the Baby Bell phone companies against their smaller rivals, Waxman would not. While many in Congress have accepted rising cable rates as a fact of life, Waxman would not.
"He has been concerned about escalating [cable] rates," said Waxman chief of staff Phil Schiliro.
With so many demands placed on their time, Capitol Hill lawmakers have to perform legislative triage. They develop expertise in a few areas and tend to lean on colleagues for advice when voting on issues outside their ken.
Waxman has chosen to focus on health care and the environment since the late 1970s. In that role, he has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to enact laws bolstering public heath and environmental protection, whether the White House occupant is a Democrat or a Republican.
"He is one of the most capable legislators in the Congress," said Waxman fan Gene Kimmelman, Washington office co-director of the Consumers Union. "There is no question about his skill at moving legislation and figuring out coalitions. He is not afraid to regulate where he sees market abuses."
Waxman represents one of the most affluent and liberal districts in the country, which includes the Los Angeles-area enclaves of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and West Hollywood.
Waxman's voting record in 2001 earned him the lowest ranking possible — zero, on a scale of zero to 100 — from the American Conservative Union.
"Those who get the zero rating don't believe in limited government, don't believe in free enterprise and, we believe, want the government to be involved in almost every aspect of a person's life," ACU spokesman Ian Walters said.
The Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group that uses the same numeric scale as ACU, scored Waxman at 90 in 2001.
Waxman might prove ineffective as chairman if his committee routinely produces hyper-progressive bills that the House Democratic leadership refuses to schedule for floor action, due to opposition from conservative Democrats and, perhaps, the White House.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) claimed that Waxman — his old friend from the University of California at Los Angeles law school in the early 1960s — would not pass bills out of committee just to see them wither on the vine.
"He's pragmatic," said Berman. "He will have a good sense of what can pass, what can't and how to put together coalitions, and how to count votes."
Waxman has been so focused on health and the environment that his record on media and telecommunications issues is thin. In 1992, he voted for the law that re-regulated the cable industry. Four years later, though, he did an about-face and supported a major telecommunications-reform law that contained cable-deregulation provisions.
As a member of the Telecommunications Subcommittee in the 1970s and early 1980s, Waxman had an active role in the failed attempt to preserve the FCC's financial-interest and syndication rules, which barred TV networks from an ownership stake in the domestic reruns of programming that had aired on their networks. Waxman's movie-industry supporters wanted the rules retained.
Officially, Schiliro said, Waxman hasn't given thought to the chairmanship, or to any media issues he would advance while outranked by Dingell.
"If he were in a position where he could spend a lot of time on telecommunications issues, I think diversity of sources has always been an important issue for him," Schiliro said. "If we look at the radio market, for instance, there has been an enormous concentration of voices."
Berman predicted Waxman would avoid content regulation but would address media ownership concentration.
"I think he would be wary of media consolidation and would be more rigorous than the Republican majority is now on that subject both in enforcing existing standards … and in perhaps proposing a more rigorous approach towards media consolidation," Berman said.
MARKEY'S A KEY
Waxman's distance from media and telecommunications issues means he would rely on Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) for some guidance, according to Berman and other sources.
Markey — who would become chairman of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee if House Democrats take control — hasn't lost his urge to regulate the cable industry.
Appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee two weeks ago, Markey said he supported the classification of cable-modem service as a telecommunications service, which would require operators to provide competing Internet-service providers with open access to their systems.
Cable operators are also experimenting with local phone service via the Internet. Markey told the panel that revenue from Internet telephony should be taxed to keep traditional phone service affordable throughout the U.S., regardless of the customer's location.
"We have to make sure that there is no escape from the responsibility of contributing to the universal-service pool," Markey said.