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New guy on government reform

U.S. Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-CA

KAI RYSSDAL: Democrats taking over in the House means a whole new slate of committee chairmen. Senior lawmakers who've been waiting a dozen years for their chance at the gavel. One of them is Henry Waxman of California. He's in line to head the House Government Reform Committee. Congressman, good to have you with us.

HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you. Pleased to be with you.

RYSSDAL: I'd like to start with the news from this morning, if I might, that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's gonna step down. You've been one of the most vocal critics of the Secretary and the way the war's been conducted. Everything from troop support, using private contractors, to how much the Pentagon's spending. Anything in today's news that makes you change your mind?

WAXMAN: I think Secretary Rumsfeld should have stepped down a long time ago. To me it's so amazing that no one in the Bush Administration is ever criticized, no one's accountable. They don't even admit they've ever made mistakes. They've made a lot of mistakes and we're seeing it everyday in Iraq. And I think you have to hold the man who's failed to do the work that needed to be done to plan the occupation and the deliverance of the country back to the Iraqi people. And that's the secretary of defense.

RYSSDAL: So we can expect oversight hearings from your committee on things like Pentagon contractors and the cost of the war.

WAXMAN: The Government Reform Committee is the major oversight and investigative committee in the House. We have jurisdiction over any issue that we choose to pursue. That doesn't mean that there aren't other committees like Intelligence or the Armed Services Committee that may also pursue some of the issues as well. But we have, as the minority, taken our investigation of some of the contracting in Iraq and the billions of dollars that can't be accounted for. I think the most important thing we could do is to pursue waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers' money wherever it may be coming from. We have examples of contracts that have been put out where we just never got our money's worth. And I think if we didn't get our money's worth, we shouldn't be paying the contractors. We should ask them to pay it back.

RYSSDAL: You and the Democrats have been in the minority now for 12 years. You, specifically, manage to get your voice heard. Now, you have the power of subpoena. What's your inclination in using that as a tool of oversight?

WAXMAN: I think subpoenas should be used only as a last resort. I chaired a committee, the Health and Environment Subcommittee, for 16 years and held some fairly high-profile hearings, including one with the CEOs of the American tobacco companies. I never issued a subpoena. But I've seen the way the Republicans handled this matter, and when Dan Burton was chairman of the Government Reform Committee, he issued over a thousand subpoenas. He issued a subpoena in a way that many of us would simply write a letter and ask for the information first.

RYSSDAL: You mentioned your hearing with the tobacco executives back in 1994. That was the one where they all stood up under oath and said nicotine was not addictive. I wonder if you might take off on another consumer angle that's in the news, certainly a lot: high gas prices. Can we expect to see oil industry executives up before the government reform committee?

WAXMAN: I think that's a very appropriate area for investigation. Why is it that the government of the United States is giving the oil and other energy producers billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks when they're so profitable? So, these are questions. Whether we will hold a hearing on that, or an investigation on that specific issue, those are matters I'll have to decide come January if I am chosen by the Democrats to head this committee, which I certainly hope to be.

RYSSDAL: Henry Waxman, Democrat of California. Soon to be the next chairman of the Government Reform Committee. Congressman, thanks a lot for your time.

WAXMAN: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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