Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician, was getting an on-camera grilling from ABC News talk show host George Stephanopoulos.
“Do you believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?” Stephanopoulos asked. “I don’t know. I can tell you….” stammered Frist, a Tennessee Republican. “You don’t know?” Stephanopoulos pressed. The majority leader, a heart transplant surgeon, finally acknowledged that it “would be very hard” to contract HIV that way.
The exchange, on the December 5 edition of “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” was prompted by a report on government-funded abstinence programs prepared by the minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform at the request of Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. The report detailed false or misleading information on contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion in 11 of the 13 most popular and widely used curricula in the programs. Federal funding for such programs has doubled within the past four years, to almost $170 million for fiscal year 2005.
“I don’t see why we should use taxpayer money… to give misleading information to young people,” Waxman said during an interview this week with the Forward.
The December report, which has touched off a national debate on abstinence-only education, was only the latest controversy-generating investigation undertaken by the government reform committee for Waxman, who has represented parts of the Los Angeles area since 1974. The longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, Waxman has used his perch as the ranking minority member of the committee to shine light on the Bush administration’s use of executive orders to expand government secrecy; its appointment of GOP partisans as government agency inspectors general, posts that are required by law to be nonpartisan, and oil giant Halliburton’s overcharging for gasoline for delivery to troops in Iraq, among other questions.
Even though Waxman has spent the past decade in the minority, he can point to results. In 2003, for example, an investigation by Waxman’s staff at the Government Reform Committee found that the State Department had miscounted terrorism statistics, reporting that world terrorism had declined that year. In fact, terrorism had grown to an all-time high.
“To his credit, [Secretary of State Colin] Powell reissued his report, coming to the same conclusions we did,” Waxman said.
When Halliburton got caught overcharging for gas in Iraq, the Defense Department gave the responsibility to its own energy desk, which has been supplying the fuel at a fraction of the previous cost.
“Henry rattles the cages with oversight,” said Waxman’s Democratic congressional ally, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York. “It’s one of the few tools we have. The Republicans have so perfected the tyranny of the majority.”
It also has earned Waxman accolades.
The May edition of Scientific American magazine lauded Waxman as “Science’s Political Bulldog” for uncovering what it deemed the administration’s politicization of scientific peer review at health, environmental and other agencies.
Press commentators often quote his work.
“I’ve been impressed by how the reports coming out of Waxman’s office meticulously and stubbornly track, document and cast a spotlight on below-the-radar information that is often ignored by other politicians in his own party and the mainstream media alike,” said New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who cited the abstinence-only report in a recent column.
Waxman’s reports gain him ample opprobrium from those in his sights, of course.
Robert Knight of the conservative group Concerned Women for America called the report on abstinence-only education “nothing but a political hit piece, an extremely misleading attempt to discredit abstinence programs because they pose a huge threat to the ‘safe sex’ establishment that promotes premarital sex, homosexuality and gender confusion.” Jill Stanek, an anti-abortion activist who appeared with President Bush at the signing of the bill banning so-called partial-birth abortion, blasted Waxman as “a pro-abortion extremist” and charged that it is “likely that the abortion industry prepared the report and ordered Waxman to present it.”
National Journal has dubbed Waxman “the bulldog the Bush administration loves to hate” for his criticism of Halliburton’s activities, which formed the basis of many of the Kerry-Edwards campaign’s attacks on Bush.
For his part, Waxman rejects the notion that he is a political hatchet man.
“I don’t think it’s partisan to object when taxpayer money is squandered,” he said in a telephone interview. The congressman said that “the reports have been very carefully done so that we don’t inject rhetoric and opinion. We try to let the facts speak for themselves.”
Waxman said that some of his Republican colleagues “are astounded to find out information we’ve produced and pushed quietly for changes” but on the whole, “it’s shocking to me how Republicans have backed away from doing [the] job” of congressional oversight of the executive branch, “which is required by the Constitution’s checks and balances.”
“They’ve taken the view that they don’t want to look at anything that might embarrass a Republican administration,” he said.
Waxman long has courted controversy. A champion of the environment and of access to health care, he has worked assiduously to ban public smoking, to protect the Clean Air Act (which he helped write) and to extend Medicaid to the working poor — earning him the enmity of polluters, tobacco companies and some state governments that resent Medicaid as an unfunded federal mandate.
Nor has Waxman shirked the mechanical side of politics. Representing the heavily Jewish West side of Los Angeles and surrounding towns, former California assemblyman Waxman, emerged in the 1970s and ’80s as a local kingmaker. Using fund-raising savvy and direct mail, he and a friend, Rep. Howard Berman, fashioned what became known as the “Waxman-Berman machine” that backed a number of winning local candidates.
Waxman pulled back from such involvements in the 1990s after some losses, however. The Almanac of American Politics describes Waxman as “one of the ablest members of the House, a shrewd political operator who is a skilled and idealistic policy entrepreneur,” noting approvingly that despite the fact he represents Hollywood’s movie stars, “there is no Westside glitz about him.”
Waxman won’t say what he’s working on next. Right now he’s savoring the fact that the Republican leadership is conceding the need to look into the abstinence-only programs.
One curriculum stated that “in heterosexual sex, condoms fail to prevent HIV approximately 31% of the time,” while another claimed that having abortion increases the chances that a woman later will give birth prematurely, “a major cause of mental retardation.” Yet another lists sweat and tears as risk factors for HIV transmission — hence Stephanopoulos’s question. All the claims are false, according to the congressional report.
Frist blinked during his recent ABC appearance when pressed by Stephanopoulos on whether the abstinence-only programs “should be reviewed and that they should be required to give out scientifically accurate information.”
“Oh, I think of course they should be reviewed,” Frist said. “I mean, and that’s in part our responsibility to make sure that all of these programs are reviewed, but whether it’s abstinence or whether it’s condoms or whether it is better education on [how to wash your hands effectively in order to avoid getting] the flu, all of these are public health challenges that we need in terms of better education.”