Who can step into his role?
On Thursday, news broke that rattled the American political world in general, but hit those of us in West Los Angeles particularly hard: 20-term Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who has represented me for most of the 17 years I have lived in Los Angeles, announced that he would not seek re-election to another term in Congress.

Congressman Waxman has not been known just for his longevity, but for his effectiveness. As Joan McCarter mentioned, Waxman developed the model for how a ranking member could be effective as a member of the minority; his accomplishments in office are such the press release detailing them needed no exaggeration to make its point. And while speculation abounds about which local heavy hitter on the political scene will step up to the plate to run to replace Waxman, the unfortunate truth is this: whoever ends up winning what will undoubtedly be a bruising election in this blue seat will step into the halls of Congress as a freshman, likely in the minority party, with impossibly big shoes to fill.

There are many factors that could have contributed to Waxman's decision to step aside. The 2010 decennial redistricting changed his district significantly and incorporated a large swatch of new, more conservative territory, and in 2012 he faced a stiff challenge from the personal war chest Republican-turned-independent Bill Bloomfield. Retirements of senior members of the minority also fuel speculation about perceptions of the minority party's changes of taking control of the House and returning the chairmanship gavels to their previous owners. Waxman, however, insists that none of these factors matter and it was simply time to give someone else a chance to take the reins:

The reason for my decision is simple. After 40 years in Congress, it’s time for someone else to have the chance to make his or her mark, ideally someone who is young enough to make the long-term commitment that’s required for real legislative success.  I still feel youthful and energetic, but I recognize if I want to experience a life outside of Congress, I need to start soon.  Public office is not the only way to serve, and I want to explore other avenues while I still can.
No matter what the reason for his retirement, however, Waxman will leave Congress a less relevant place than he found it. And Congress only has itself to blame. More below the fold.

The American system of government is contrived from a Madisonian ideal of checks and balances that are specifically designed to force the various branches of government to work together and compromise. As Madison himself wrote in The Federalist #51:

To what expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.
The idea of the very structure of government forcing its various apparatus to work together to accomplish objectives, even at the risk of slowing down progress, is laudable, as it prevents extremism in any particular faction from imposing its will on the land. The unfortunate part about checks and balances? It assumes that everyone in all branches of government is working toward the common objective of public service, rather than a scenario in which those in charge of a particular branch (or rather, one half of one branch) have as their primary objective to politically break other branches of government. Absent this fundamental aspect of good governance and mutual goals, a system in which the consent of all branches is necessary to get anything done rewards radicalism as a method of obstruction.

The tea party Republicans have used their power in Congress to do everything they can to prevent anything from actually getting done. The problem with this approach? It leads to drastically bad poll numbers. What happens when Congress has drastically bad poll numbers and is preventing the president from getting anything done? Why, executive orders, which run on the calculated risk that the policy outcome achieved by an executive order is worth whatever political risk is involved by sidestepping congressional approval.

Now, despite the handwringing and battle cries of the right wing, President Obama is actually issuing executive orders at the lowest rate since Grover Cleveland. No surprise: he has dedicated his presidency to brokering great compromises and grand bargains. When a deliberate negotiator like President Obama announces an increased reliance on executive orders, then, it is time to take heed. One might also expect that members of Congress, even ones ideologically allied with the current president, would not take too kindly to that president's announcement that he was intending on making them less relevant part of the government process. Instead, however, the use of executive orders was an applause line among congressional Democrats:

@rudepundit: Obama says he'll work without Congress. Half of Congress applauds its irrelevance.
In other words, things have gotten so bad in Congress that Democrats would rather applaud their irrelevance in the name of progress on issues than attempt to preserve their own authority while making no progress whatsoever. And the Republicans who control the chamber would rather use their offices to pursue a vitriolic witch-hunt against one individual than ensure that the fundamental structure of American democracy is viewed as a net positive.

Congressman Henry Waxman prided himself on getting things done for the American people, even when in the minority, and actually reaching across the aisle when possible to partner on meaningful reforms. He prided himself on being effective and getting things done for the people. But given what Congress has turned itself into, the surprise isn't that someone as effective as Waxman has retired; the surprise, rather, is that so many other effective legislators are still hanging around.

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