A warning to members of the public: Be extremely careful when approaching the U.S. Capitol these days. You could be trampled in a stampede of frustrated members of Congress, running for the hills.
Indeed, a record number of Democrats and Republicans, including some of Washington’s most senior and most effective legislators, have decided to throw in the towel. In the Senate, three Republicans and five Democrats are stepping down, including powerful Senate Armed Services Committee Chairmen Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is leaving to take up his new job as U.S. ambassador to China, as well. In the House, 17 members so far — 10 Republicans, 7 Democrats — have announced their retirement. More are sure to follow.
In one sense, this is nothing new. Turnover happens every two years. People come, people go, life goes on. But, in two cases especially — California Democratic Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman — this year’s retirements have special significance, both for who they are and what they represent.
Miller, with a rare shout-out from President Obama in last week’s State of the Union address, leaves a record that’s second to none. He led the fight on every major environmental, education and labor issue for the last 40 years. He deserves credit for the creation of California’s Death Valley National Park and the Joshua Tree National Park. He partnered with former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on “No Child Left Behind” and expanded Pell Grants. He’s the House champion for organized labor and efforts to raise the minimum wage.
Waxman is the only person who can match Miller’s record. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he took on the tobacco industry over their lies about the addiction of nicotine. It was Waxman who defended and saved the Clean Air Act, who fought to get pesticides out of drinking water, who first recognized the threat of HIV/AIDS and brought low-priced generic drugs to market. And it was Waxman, more than any other member of Congress, who secured passage of the Affordable Care Act.
It’s no exaggeration to say that every single American lives better today because of the work of George Miller and Henry Waxman. They came here to do good, and they did. They are the exact opposite of today’s Tea Party members, who came here to do nothing, and will leave, the sooner the better, having accomplished nothing, except to have gotten in the way.
“I first ran for office because I believe government can be a force for good in people’s lives,” Waxman said last week. That’s what serving in Congress is all about. Or it should be. Anybody who doesn’t believe that shouldn’t have run for Congress in the first place.
Press is host of “The Bill Press Show” on Free Speech TV and author of The Obama Hate Machine.