Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who turned top liberal priorities into laws on everything from the environment to health care, announced Thursday that he will retire at the end of this year, bringing to a close a momentous 40-year career on Capitol Hill.
From pushing an update of the Clean Air Act in 1990 to serving as Democrats’ chief investigator of President George W. Bush to helping highlight the infiltration of steroids into baseball, Mr. Waxman was involved in many of the big fights over the past few decades.
His departure, along with the looming retirement of fellow California Democratic Rep. George Miller and the ascension of former Rep. Ed Markey to the Senate last year, means the House no longer has any “Watergate Babies” — members of the class of 1974, elected in the wake of President Nixon’s scandals.
“My parents were scarred by the Great Depression and as a result they were ardent Democrats,” Mr. Waxman, 74, said in a statement announcing his decision. “They taught me that the special interests have plenty of advocates; it’s the poor, the sick, and the powerless who need a champion in Congress. And that’s what I’ve strived to be.”
Indeed, there are few industries that didn’t face Mr. Waxman’s scrutiny as top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and later as top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over everything from health care to automobile fuel standards.
He said he was proud of laws that helped spur the generic drug industry, his investigations into the tobacco industry, and his early focus on AIDS, which he said helped prompt federal funding for medical care of those living with the disease.
“Thanks to Henry’s leadership, Americans breathe cleaner air, drink cleaner water, eat safer food, purchase safer products and, finally, have access to quality, affordable health care,” President Obama said.
The departure of Mr. Waxman and Mr. Miller will deprive House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of two trusted lieutenants, and some press reports are speculating that her exit may not be far away.
Those who regularly battled Mr. Waxman said they were happy to see him go and that voters should be, too.
“Henry Waxman is personally responsible for the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, which not only have but will continue to corrode American economic growth for years,” said Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist and Republican strategist. “He’s personally responsible for some chunk of the unemployment rate. There are industries not in this country anymore because of legislation he passed.”
Mr. McKenna said that Mr. Waxman, Mr. Markey and Mr. Miller — the three Watergate Babies who are all retiring — were the muscles behind most of the House Democrats’ environmental agenda.
“It means the Democrats are going to be significantly less effective than they’ve been on these issues,” he said.
Environmentalists acknowledged their loss. “We will miss him immensely,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski.
Mr. Waxman’s most recent big effort was on global warming, where he and Mr. Markey crafted a bill in 2009 to impose a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions. The bill passed the House but was never taken up by the Senate.
In his retirement announcement, Mr. Waxman fired shots at his opponents, including blasting “the extremism of the tea party Republicans,” saying he was “embarrassed” by partisanship in the House and ridiculing those he said were “denying science.”
But he said he wasn’t leaving out of “frustration with Congress,” and he said his retirement shouldn’t be seen as a comment on Democrats’ election prospects this year.
Mr. Waxman’s retirement is unlikely to affect the chamber’s partisan balance, because his district is a strongly Democratic area. According to The Associated Press, several Democrats expressed interest Thursday in running, among them Sandra Fluke, the former law student who became the face of the Obama administration’s contraception mandates when talk show host Rush Limbaugh referred to her as a “slut.”
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