While others wish the new Congress well today on its swearing-in, I plan to light a 100-watt incandescent bulb and hoist a caffeinated alcoholic beverage in honor of a different milestone: starting today, the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee will no longer be under the control of Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
Some lawmakers can talk a decent game about lean ‘n’ smart regulation, but no one ever accused Waxman of having a light touch. (The 900-page Waxman-Markey environmental bill, mercifully killed by the Senate, included provisions letting Washington rewrite local building codes.) He’s known for aggressive micromanagement even of agencies run by putative allies: his staff has repeatedly twisted the ears of Obamanaut appointees to complain that their approach to regulation is too moderate and gradual. More than any other lawmaker on the Hill, he’s stood in the way of any meaningful reform of the 2008 CPSIA law, which piles impractical burdens on small makers of children’s products, thrift stores, bicycles and others.
Like his predecessor, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Waxman and his subcommittee chairs have famously used hearings as a club to discipline interest groups that don’t cooperate. Last spring he menaced large employers with hearings after several of them announced (contrary to some predictions) that ObamaCare was going to hurt their bottom lines. In September, subcommittee chair Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) announced hearings on regulating precious-metal companies, in a remarkable press release that devoted much attention to the firms’ role in sponsoring “several conservative pundits … including Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Laura Ingraham, and Fred Thompson. By drumming up public fears during financially uncertain times, conservative pundits are able to drive a false narrative,” the release said. In other words, the committee was investigating private firms in part because it disapproved of their advertising on, and reinforcing the economic message of, conservative talk shows. Didn’t anyone on Weiner’s staff have a sudden overhead flash about the whole “First Amendment” idea? Or had that particular light bulb been banned too?
The committee was an unending source of ghastly new legislative proposals for regulatory manacles to be fastened on one or another sector of the economy , ideas that with any luck we may now be spared for the next two years. Thus it appears unlikely that the Republican-led committee will give its blessing to something called the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 (H.R. 5786), introduced by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), which – by mandating that all compounds found in personal-care items at any detectable level be expensively tested for and disclosed on labels – could have added tens of thousands of dollars of cost overhead to that little herbal-soap business your sister is trying to start in her garage. (Fragrance expert Robert Tisserand explains why most small personal-care product makers would not survive if the bill passed). Nor is it likely that the new leadership of chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) will be in a hurry to adopt Rep. Schakowsky’s H.R. 1408, the Inclusive Home Design Act, which would mandate handicap accessibility features in most new private homes.
I look forward to learning more about the plans of Rep. Upton and his new majority colleagues. For today, however, it’s enough just to know that they are Not Henry Waxman.