POLITICAL PARTIES IN CALIFORNIA HAVE TRADITIONALLY been weak, a consequence of the early twentieth-century Progressives, like the state’s formidable governor and senator Hiram Johnson, who were suspicious of them and worked to limit their influence. The absence of a strong party organization meant that there was no “machine” to dole out desirable appointments and committee assignments or to handpick candidates and mediate their disputes. In 1960s Sacramento the consequence of these conditions was to concentrate power in the legendary speaker of the State Assembly, Jesse Unruh.
Unruh’s political views were often quite liberal. In 1959, Unruh, a lapsed Mennonite, authored California’s Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in housing and employment and became a model for later reforms. But more than any policy, his overriding obsession was wielding power, and during his career he created a top-down system in which most of what happened in the Assembly flowed directly from the speaker.
Emblematic of Unruh’s command over the legislature was a famous story that involved an Oakland assemblyman named Bob Crown, who had been an ally of the speaker’s, but had broken with him by the time I arrived. Crown was universally regarded as a shrewd operator and a felicitous speaker, so during the time when they were aligned, he often carried Unruh’s bills in the Assembly. One day in a committee hearing, Crown was wrapping up a speech that carefully laid out the arguments against the pending measure when one of Unruh’s lackeys appeared in the back of the room and began frantically signaling to him that the speaker in fact wished for the bill to pass. Without missing a beat, Crown declared “And that’s what opponents of this legislation would claim about this bill” before proceeding to deliver an equally impassioned statement of support. When I got to Sacramento, Crown befriended me and helped illuminate the Assembly’s many strange byways of power. To this eager novice, he explained how the world worked.
Unruh’s power derived from his control over legislators. Lacking a strong party organization to help a legislator facing a tough race, it was Unruh’s ability, and nobody else’s, to help those loyal to him with money and choice committee assignments. As such, he was often hostile to the “outsider” liberal reformers elected to office in the 1960s and set on changing the old ways. Unruh thought the old ways worked just fine. His famous remark about lobbyists gives a good sense of his outsize personality, and of how things were when I arrived in the State Assembly: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, screw their women, and then come in here the next day and vote against them, you don’t belong in Sacramento.”
The great struggle between Jesse Unruh and Pat Brown had ended just before I arrived in Sacramento. Ronald Reagan had defeated Brown in the 1966 gubernatorial election. And though I won an Assembly seat in 1968, my party hadn’t fared remotely so well: The Republicans gained a majority, relegating Unruh to an unaccustomed place in the minority. Suddenly, Democrats found themselves united on recovering a majority.
Unruh was no slouch at organizing. He and his allies had long taken money from the special interests to fund the campaigns that kept them in power. At his say-so, Democrats in safe seats would often raise money for colleagues facing tough races in order to maximize the party’s strength—a smart strategy. It wasn’t enough to keep the Republicans at bay in 1968. But a new generation of liberals that included many of my fellow Young Democrats—John Burton, Willie Brown, Dave Roberti, and Bob Moretti, to name just a few—had begun winning Assembly seats, and brought with them new methods of organizing that they now deployed on behalf of the broader party. The computerized targeting that my campaign pioneered was one such technique, and it earned me a central role in our counterattack.
Late 1960s Sacramento had a distinctive political culture. It was a capital in the middle of nowhere, so legislators tended to go up for the week and return home on weekends. A legislator’s Sacramento social life consisted mainly of raucous parties. (If nothing else, Jesse Unruh’s political philosophy put a premium on conviviality.) Because so many of the men brought their girlfriends to these parties, wives were not welcome. The social pressure was strong enough that when I met my wife, Janet, during my time in Sacramento, I had to break the news that I could bring her to some of these gatherings—but only until we were married.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when it came to committee assignments, most legislators scrambled for seats on what were known as the “juice committees”—those responsible for overseeing the special interest groups that lavished the most desired forms of attention on lawmakers. One such committee dealt with racetracks; another oversaw liquor sales. Seats on the juice committees were a sought-after plum; chairing one guaranteed that you would be feted like a Roman nobleman. Several of my colleagues seemed to orient their entire careers toward realizing this distinction.
AS SOMEONE WHO WAS LOW-KEY BUT HIGHLY POLITICAL, I WAS more than satisfied to chair the Elections and Redistricting Committee, and hired Michael Berman to be my right-hand man. With Unruh planning to challenge Reagan for the governorship in 1970, my friend Bob Moretti was angling to become the next Democratic speaker, and I was set on doing everything I could to help him. He turned to me to ensure that our party would be in the best possible position to win and hold on to a majority after the decennial round of redistricting.
Political redistricting is one of those obscure backroom exercises whose particulars can be dry and difficult to understand, but carry great weight in the stakes of power. Every ten years, in statehouses across the country, the geographic boundaries of congressional districts are redrawn (“redistricted”) to reflect the latest demographic information from the United States Census. If a state’s population increases, as it usually does in California, the state might be awarded additional congressional seats. If it has declined, seats can be taken away. Either shift sets off a mad scramble—driven by ambition, party loyalty, and raw self-interest—to craft new districts. In California, the party that controls the state legislature gets to redraw the map.
Democrats were fortunate enough to win back a narrow majority in the State Assembly in 1970, the year in which the new census data were released. Bob Moretti became the new speaker. My job was to consult with Phil Burton, a master of redistricting now serving in Congress, to figure out how to draw a map that would yield the best result for the Democratic Party. It was a lot of work, but I was confident we’d get it done well before the end of the summer. So Janet and I planned our wedding for October.
In theory, redistricting should be a simple exercise: Fiddle with the borders until you’ve maximized the number of safe Democratic seats and call it a day. In practice, I was soon to discover, the task demands an advanced degree in psychology, a tireless capacity for salesmanship, and the patience of Job.
Redistricting brings out the best and worst in politicians. Although an admirable few agree to whatever map best serves their party’s interests, many more beg and plead for what seem the strangest of reasons. Say a district is redrawn in such a way that it maintains a member’s core constituency and adds a few more Democratic neighborhoods. Surely an easy sell. But you never know how the incumbent will react. “Oh, but my brother-in-law lives over here—I can’t possibly give up that neighborhood!” “Don’t you dare chop off the western edge of my district—my biggest donor lives there!” “Please, Henry, give me more Republicans if you must, but put my mother-in-law in the next district over!”
And, of course, when you have as narrow a margin as we Democrats did that year—42-38—anyone can hold up the process. At the same time my Democratic colleagues were wheedling for geographic favors, my Republican counterpart, Jerry Lewis, who later became a colleague in Congress, was doing all that he could to protect his own party’s incumbents. Redistricting always labors under the threat that if the minority party is sufficiently aggrieved by the map, they can go to court or, if the governor is a member of the party, have him veto the bill. The negotiations dragged on, and my wedding date loomed ever closer. In late summer, it looked briefly as though we might strike a deal. But a special election held in August flipped a seat to the Republicans, further narrowing the margin. Janet and I decided we had better go ahead with the wedding.
When the big day arrived, no deal had been reached, though one did appear tantalizingly close. Many of my colleagues attended the wedding. As the new Mr. and Mrs. Waxman greeted the receiving line, I spotted our brand-new Speaker Moretti looking preoccupied. When he reached Janet and me, he congratulated us and then leaned in close to whisper. “Look, Henry,” he said, “I know it’s your wedding, but a couple of the guys coming down the line haven’t committed to the bill yet…” As the recalcitrant assemblymen made their way down the line to offer their blessings, I thanked each of them and then added, “Now, I sure hope I can count on your support for the redistricting bill.”
That fall it finally passed—and Governor Reagan promptly vetoed it. We appealed in vain to the California Supreme Court. The law states that “the governor must sign the bill” and Reagan refused, wagering that a court-mandated plan would better serve Republican interests than did ours. The court called for a new map for 1974 and used the old districts for 1972. Two years’ hard work amounted to a do-over.
THANKFULLY, MY ASSEMBLY WORK WAS NOT LIMITED TO REDIStricting. Early on, I decided that in order to become an effective legislator I should develop an area of expertise, which would enable me to exert outsized influence whenever that subject arose. Because my district was home to a large elderly population, health policy struck me as a good specialization. People always need good health care and it is an area where government has historically had a hugely beneficial effect: providing access to care, supporting research to prevent and cure diseases, and overseeing the system to end abuses and ensure efficient function. In 1968, health policy was also an excitingly new frontier. Congress had recently created the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, and making sure that they were properly implemented was among the most important services a legislator could provide his constituents.
Since this was the furthest thing from a juice assignment, the speaker was happy to appoint me to the Assembly Health Committee. In order to learn the ins and outs of policy, I began consulting doctors, hospital administrators, constituents, and anyone else I thought might have something to teach me. Lobbyists, too, are always eager to “educate” legislators on their pet issues, at least from the point of view they were paid to push. To avoid being hypnotized by their arguments, I also subscribed to physicians magazines to learn what issues doctors were concerned about and to see if there was a way that I might be able to help.
When my first legislative session began in 1969, Ronald Reagan had targeted Medi-Cal (as California’s Medicaid program is known). As a conservative, Reagan was eager to shrink the size of government, and intended to cut a significant number of people from the program and reduce payments to doctors who treated Medi-Cal patients. Both actions would lower the cost—though with the obvious negative effects of leaving many people uninsured and diminishing the number of doctors willing to treat those still covered.
The health committee held hearings on Reagan’s proposals to illustrate the likely consequences of his cuts. In addition to garnering public attention, this prompted the California Rural Legal Assistance to file suit to halt them, on the grounds that Reagan did not have the right to take away people’s health care by removing them from Medi-Cal, an argument the court upheld.
During the next legislative session, after I declined the redistricting job and became chairman of the Health Committee instead, Reagan tried again. Constituents and public interest groups had been complaining to me that some state-licensed Medi-Cal plans were run by operators who did not have the contracts with doctors and hospitals that they claimed in order to get government funding, and thus could not provide access to the care that patients needed. People duped into enrolling in bad plans discovered that they couldn’t get out of them.
Having been prevented from kicking Medi-Cal recipients out of the program, Reagan next tried to move patients from private doctors to health maintenance organizations, or HMOs, as a way of limiting costs. Medi-Cal paid the bills of Californians who chose to visit their own doctors. Reagan wanted to move them into HMOs in order to cap the amount of money the state had to pay. My father’s union had offered membership in Kaiser Permanente’s HMO, so I had always looked favorably upon the concept and believed that HMOs provided a model for the future of health care. But the system Reagan presided over was badly flawed. Though patients in Medi-Cal HMOs cost the state less than those going to private doctors, many of these plans did not have doctors or other medical personnel to see people when care was needed.
Instead of removing people from Medi-Cal, Reagan had state workers go door to door in poor neighborhoods tricking people into “voluntarily” signing up for HMOs. Sometimes these workers dressed as doctors and frightened people by saying that they had to switch over to the HMO or they’d lose their health care. This created a terrible situation. Many of the people who signed up for the plan did not understand what it was and wound up being turned away by their old doctors. This left a sick and vulnerable population confused and unable to get the health care to which they were legally entitled.
As chairman of the Health Committee, I held oversight hearings to dramatize many of the abuses being inflicted at Reagan’s behest, and we set to work writing legislation to halt them. In 1972, a Republican colleague and I authored the Waxman-Duffy Act, which set standards for HMOs that included public hearings to establish that anyone seeking a government Medi-Cal contract had the necessary financial resources and service providers to deliver quality care to his patients. Seeing how the combination of oversight hearings and legislation could improve the lives of so many people further persuaded me of what government can do for its people.
NOW THAT I WAS MARRIED, I DECIDED THAT MY OWN LIFE WITH Janet and my stepdaughter, Carol, needed a little more grounding. The life of a legislator can be an oddly transient one. Because district borders can shift so easily, I’d always held off on buying a house. But feeling that my Assembly seat was more or less secure, we decided it was time to find a home for our family.
When we were first married, Janet had spotted a house that she loved in Sacramento. Serendipitously, it appeared on the market right around the time we decided to settle down. She went for a tour and returned declaring that she had indeed found our dream house. So we bought it.
After the legislature and governor failed to pass a redistricting law for 1974, the court appointed an independent “master” to draw the lines. On the same day in 1974 that we moved into our new Sacramento house, the California Supreme Court released its redistricting map, which made it clear that I’d win my next Assembly race easily. It was also clear that I had a safe path to the local State Senate seat if I wanted to go that route. But another possibility was even more tantalizing: A brand-new congressional district had been drawn in the area and therefore lacked an incumbent.
Janet and I discussed the options and quickly agreed on our next move. “Let’s do Congress,” she told me. “I won’t unpack.” As fast as we’d bought it, we turned around and sold our dream house and moved back to Los Angeles to prepare for my next campaign.
People tend to assume that the most difficult part of a political race is facing off against the others who have chosen to run. But often the key to winning is convincing potential opponents not to run in the first place. That was the task before me as I plotted my 1974 congressional campaign. The new district was so safely Democratic that my main job was to persuade fellow Democrats not to run against me. `
In order to show strength, I began by collecting the endorsements of as many public officials and community leaders as I could in the hope of discouraging potential challengers. The most imposing looked to be a city councilman named Ed Edelman, who was already running for the position of Los Angeles county supervisor. I went to visit him and proposed that we support each other: I’d endorse him for supervisor and he, in turn, would endorse me for Congress. Edelman was clearly tempted by the bigger prize, but he’d already embarked on one race that my endorsement would make a little easier to win, and after weighing his options, he agreed. Our plan worked. That fall, I was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 24th District without even facing significant competition.
THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS “CLASS OF 1974” WAS A HISTORIC one because it was the first elected in the wake of Watergate. Ninety-two new representatives, most of them Democrats like me, swept into the House of Representatives bearing a message of reform. Though Watergate had played almost no role at all in my own race, I shared the eagerness for change and the desire to take on the entrenched powers and clean up Washington.
When I arrived in Congress, the reform movement already could be thought of as manifesting on two fronts. The first was within the Congress itself, as a younger generation tried to dismantle the antiquated seniority system. From around the turn of the century, congressional rank had been determined solely by a member’s length of service. This meant that the most powerful legislators were simply the ones who had been around longest. They chaired the most important committees, and their power was nearly absolute. A chairman could create and abolish subcommittees, name the subcommittee chairmen (taking the role for himself if he wished), and determine when to hold hearings. The chairmen also controlled the entire committee staff.
The seniority system produced the handful of famous Southern Democrats who had long dominated the Congress when I arrived. Nowhere were the system’s shortcomings better illustrated than in Howard “Judge” Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, who had managed to block civil rights legislation for years by refusing to allow bills to go to the floor for a vote. When the Civil Rights Act of 1957 came before his committee, Smith famously declared, “The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence and education and social attainment as the white people of the South.” It took reformers five years to change the rules sufficiently for the Civil Rights Act to make it to the House floor.
Behavior like Judge Smith’s so disgraced the old system that challenges finally became possible. In 1971, members passed a resolution stipulating that seniority would no longer be the sole criterion for chairmanships and established voting procedures for the removal of chairmen. In 1973, the first such votes were held, though they were little more than formalities, and every chairman survived. In 1975, the influx of change-minded members that I was among provided the impetus to finally topple a few of the old lions: Wright Patman of the Banking Committee, F. Edward Hebert of the Armed Services Committee, and W. R. Poage of the Agriculture Committee.
What was overtaking Congress in the 1970s was a lot like what had occurred in the California Assembly in the 1960s. A new generation was fighting to change the old way of doing things—and now, as then, the man at the center of the action was my friend Phil Burton. Burton was the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and like many reformers of the day set on shifting the balance of power from the chairmen to the caucus members. Burton wanted the chairmen to feel that they were accountable, not just to themselves but to the other Democratic members of the House. The unexpected defeat of three committee chairs in 1975 conveyed the message loud and clear.
The other major component of reform in Washington when I arrived was the mounting opposition to the concentration of power in the executive branch, a direct response to the problems of Watergate and Richard Nixon’s “Imperial Presidency.” As the Watergate scandal unfolded in the pages of The Washington Post, readers learned that the infamous break-in was merely the tip of the iceberg. The Nixon administration had spied on private citizens, used the Internal Revenue Service against political enemies, and routinely lied to and misled Congress and the American people.
Congress acquitted itself ably in its response to Watergate. On the legislative front, campaign finance reform established a new set of laws aimed at curbing the influence of money on elections, while the Freedom of Information Act encouraged government openness. Spurred by the Poststories, House and Senate oversight hearings enabled congressional investigators to dig deeply enough to bring all the facts to light and expose the full extent of the Watergate scandal. Congressmen and senators of both parties routinely stood up to the White House. And it was the House of Representatives that finally impeached the president and brought about his resignation.
The public’s view of Congress during Watergate was generally favorable. But I believe that the combination of two events that originated in the executive branch—Watergate and the Vietnam War—led to such widespread disillusionment with government that the American people eventually lost faith in the Congress as well.
IN THE MIDST OF THESE HISTORIC CHANGES, IT REMAINED FOR ME to figure out the day-to-day business of the Congress. My interest in health care led me to pursue a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over most health issues. Along with the Ways and Means Committee, Energy and Commerce is one of the two “power” committees in the House, because both have enormous responsibilities that encompass much of the American economy. Along with a handful of my freshman classmates, I got my desired assignment to Energy and Commerce, and when we drew straws to determine seniority, I came out on top.
As if by script, we were immediately plunged into a battle over the chairmanship of the Oversight Subcommittee that pitted Harley Staggers, a West Virginian who chaired the full committee, against John Moss, a reform-minded challenger from Sacramento. As a new member, I was courted vigorously by both sides and familiar with neither. Staggers, in his West Virginia drawl, told me, “I want to do what’s best for America, and I’m a good Christian.” It seemed a rather strange appeal for my vote. Moss’s entreaty was that he was in tune with the new generation and all that it stood for. When the time came for members to cast their secret ballots, most of my class and I sided with Moss, who prevailed.
Moss went on to become one of the great masters of the oversight process, and it was through his example that I first learned how it was done. He not only held hearings to highlight problems and abuses, but did so in ways designed to redound to his party’s electoral benefit. There is a tendency, even among elected officials, to think of a congressman’s various responsibilities—campaigning, fund-raising, legislating—as discrete enterprises. In reality, they’re closely connected. Moss demonstrated this by using his oversight power to spotlight many of the themes that would become critical issues in the 1976 election. These included the Republican Party’s countless abuses of power, but also such seemingly unconnected things as the Arab boycott of Israel.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford had said of the boycott, “Such discrimination is totally contrary to the American tradition and repugnant to American values.” Moss held a hearing in which he revealed that Ford’s own Commerce Department had solicited U.S. businesses on behalf of Arab nations that required them to boycott Israel. Moss knew that U.S. law required companies to notify the Commerce Department of requests to comply with the boycott and also whether or not the company did so. He invited Commerce Secretary Rogers Morton to testify and asked him to release the list of U.S. companies. Morton refused, effectively putting the Republican Party on the side of the Arabs. A public uproar ensued, and Moss initiated contempt proceedings against Morton, who finally yielded. In a presidential debate with Ford several months later, Jimmy Carter invoked the Arab boycott and vowed to outlaw any cooperation in a Carter administration.
Because the pace of legislation is slow and complicated and the process itself arcane, Congress is often difficult for the media to cover, especially television. But an oversight hearing, particularly on a highly charged issue, is an exception to this rule: Run properly, it has a clear story line, compelling characters, and frequent dramatic clashes. Furthermore, congressmen routinely tailor their presentations for television by using visual props and colorful sound bites. Moss had a keen awareness of this, and was even more effective because he generously allowed others to take the lead in questioning witnesses. His oversight hearings frequently made the evening news on all three major television networks.
I learned from Moss that oversight hearings were a golden opportunity to bring public attention to an issue, which instantly made it a higher priority for Congress. The practical effect of a successful hearing is that the media will immediately want to know three things: How did this happen? Whose fault is it? Why isn’t it being stopped? The ensuing pressure often forces the responsible party to take action or creates an imperative for legislation.
The other important figure I encountered on the Energy and Commerce Committee was Paul Rogers, a moderate Democrat from West Palm Beach, Florida, whose father, Dwight Rogers, had preceded him in Congress. Paul Rogers was the chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment when I joined in 1975, though he was best known for his nickname, “Mr. Health.” During his twenty-four-year career, he helped draft and pass such important legislation as the National Cancer Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Emergency Medical Services Act, among many others. But his skill as a chairman was what influenced me the most.
Having come from the top-down world of the California Assembly, I was astonished to see how Rogers ran committee meetings. Though a Democrat, he operated as though party affiliation did not exist, soliciting input as readily from Republicans as Democrats. When a bill was being considered by the subcommittee, he would walk us through it, section by section, allowing those members with specialized expertise to explain the importance of various issues and lead bipartisan discussions on what changes or amendments might improve them. Rogers always tried to reach consensus between Republicans and Democrats on how a bill would be modeled and what it should say. To my amazement, I learned that I—a mere freshman!—could influence a bill by speaking up and making a good point, which would shift the consensus in my direction. This was completely unlike the way Jesse Unruh had run the Assembly.
The genius of Rogers’s method was manifold. Because everyone’s views were considered, we all felt invested in the bill, even if it did not end up going our way. Because bills were never rammed through on party-line votes, Rogers could frequently put together different coalitions of Republicans and Democrats, which made it much harder for special interests to influence the process and much easier for us to pass good legislation. But most of all, the idea that a subcommittee possessed genuine expertise and that its decisions and legislation merited respect and deference from the full committee was widely accepted. During a House floor vote, for instance, it was common to hear members of both parties say, “The committee wants an ‘aye’ vote on the amendment” or “The committee wants a ‘no’ vote,” because everyone respected the power of the committees. Rather than a top-down system, the congressional process when I arrived was bottom-up, with benefits that were clear to everyone.
IN 1979, PAUL ROGERS SURPRISED EVERYONE BY ANNOUNCING HIS retirement. I had been in Congress for four years, and two Democrats senior to me appeared likely to bid for his chairmanship. The first opted not to. But the second, Richardson Preyer, decided to run. Preyer was a respected moderate from North Carolina, the very embodiment of an enlightened Southern Democrat. He was distinguished, honorable (he had been a judge), and staunchly for civil rights. But hailing from tobacco country, he didn’t think cigarettes were a health problem, as I did. And as a wealthy man whose family fortune derived from the Richardson-Merrill Pharmaceutical Company, makers of Vicks VapoRub, his becoming chairman presented a serious conflict of interest. One of the subcommittee’s major functions is overseeing the Food and Drug Administration.
My own view was that the caucus ought to select the best person for the job. I’d been active on the subcommittee and believed I knew more about health policy than most of my colleagues. And I cared deeply about health and the environment—it was one of the main reasons I’d run for Congress. So I decided to challenge him.
Despite a few cracks in the facade, the seniority system very much still held sway. The older generation, including such legendary liberal reformers as Dick Bolling, reacted angrily to my perceived impertinence. But I was not without support. The environmental, consumer, and labor groups all lined up behind me. And a kind of generational solidarity among the younger, reform-minded members took hold to counter the old guard. I focused my attention on a dozen or so of my subcommittee colleagues whose votes would determine my fate.
Congressmen choose their leaders for all sorts of reasons: friendship, substance, ambition, money, regional and generational loyalties, and sometimes, I suspect, simply on a whim. A successful politician must work creatively until he finds the right claim on his colleagues’ support. After I’d spoken with each of the undecideds, I tried to figure out who else I could contact to persuade to go my way. Tim Wirth of Colorado was a serious environmentalist. A number of my Los Angeles supporters agreed to lobby him on my behalf. Bob Eckhardt, a Houston liberal, was concerned about the influence of pharmaceutical companies. But I always suspected that he ultimately yielded not to my entreaties but to his daughter’s wish that he support me. Someone else I’d worked closely with, but who represented a Southern tobacco state, was Al Gore. Difficult as it must have been not to support a fellow Southern moderate, Gore, who was a personal friend, cared a great deal about the dangers of tobacco and the conflicts a Preyer chairmanship would pose. In the end, he cast a very brave vote for me.
Preyer’s allies did not roll over. Their main line of attack was to claim that I was attempting to buy the chairmanship by donating money from a political action committee to my fellow members. In California, giving money to one’s colleagues was standard practice and, more to the point, smart politics—Jesse Unruh built and maintained a Democratic majority by seeing that his legislators had the means to get reelected.
I brought this practice with me to Congress because it yields important political benefits. As with oversight hearings, the tendency is always to look at the issue of money in isolation—in fact, because the influence of money in politics is such a fraught subject, the tendency is probably stronger here than anywhere else. The widespread view of money’s role in politics is simply that it’s bad. But rather than think of it as “good” or “bad,” it’s more useful to think of money as a political fact of life, and to develop a realist’s understanding of how it flows and influences the business of Washington. Money is as important to the substantive work of Congress as a bill or an election. Everything intertwines.
To pass good legislation, you must first be surrounded by the right kind of people. When you find like-minded colleagues, you want to help in whatever way you can to make sure they stay put. Having a good committee lineup broadens the possibilities of what can be achieved (just as a bad one limits them). This is one reason why I spend so much time and effort trying to influence who gets on my committee. Before you can move legislation, you must first lay the groundwork by making sure that the right pieces are in place. It’s like chess. A single vote can be the difference between a strong acid rain provision and a weak one.
The luxury of a safe seat meant that I didn’t need to raise much money for my own reelection. Instead, from the time I arrived in Congress, I donated to those whom I considered valuable allies. Though it displeased some traditionalists, this practice has had positive results. Year after year, many of the members I supported have cast key votes on important legislation.
But when I went up against Preyer, this approach was bitterly disputed. Dick Bolling declared himself so offended that I had given money to people on the committee as to suggest that I be stripped of my seniority. The New York Times editorial page sided with my critics. At the time, the idea of being criticized for helping my fellow Democrats get reelected upset me. But I came to realize that the institution of Congress was changing, and that was sometimes wrenching for the young and the old alike.
I tried to focus on the immediate task by having lunch with every member of the committee to make my pitch personally. Some I went back to again and again. The work of a congressman involves a lot of process, and it is often far from glamorous. But experience had taught me that persistent effort pays off.
So far as I could tell, Richardson Preyer did not campaign very hard. Though courtly and well liked, he was also a bit diffident. Accustomed to the culture of seniority, he seemed to find the idea of politicking for a chairmanship ever so slightly demeaning, and so he would not deign to ask for votes.
Under House rules, a subcommittee chairman is not chosen in a head-to-head race. Instead, the senior member must bid for it and either be elected or defeated. When at last the day arrived, the voting went 16-14 against Preyer. In the next round of voting moments later, I became chairman of Health and Environment, and the great changes underway in Congress took another turn. It was the first time in the history of the institution that someone had won a subcommittee chairmanship out of the line of seniority.