Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has seen a great deal during his 38 years in Congress. Representing a district that includes the areas of Malibu and Santa Monica, the longtime congressman has served through seven presidents, 19 full House terms, the chairmanship of several prominent House committees, and a dizzying array of legislative activity.
Such a history does not mean that the congressman is intent to dwell on the past, however. In a wide-ranging interview with PolicyMic, the congressman, currently the Democrats' ranking member on the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce, expressed his views on a variety of topics affecting America's young people, including health care, climate change, gay rights, and young peoples' current disillusionment with government. What follows is a transcript of the interview in its entirety.
PolicyMic: How do you feel about the efforts of certain outside groups to dissuade young people from getting insurance under the Affordable Care Act?
I think it’s pretty outrageous. It’s a disservice to young people, to try to keep them from being able to go and get health insurance, which they ought to have for their own protection. Young people tend to be healthy, but they’re one accident away from a possible disaster and all the costs that would be associated with health care.
Young people have a great opportunity to get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. They’re already able to stay on their parents’ policy up to age 26, that’s already in place. When they have the marketplaces, they’ll be able to choose a number of different policies. Most likely a lot of these young people starting off in their careers will get tax credits to help them pay for the insurance coverage. And after that, if they still find that it’s too expensive, they have the option, up to age 30, to buy a “catastrophic-only” insurance policy.
So there are a lot of options available to them. The insurance plan cannot work if the only ones will take advantage of it are the ones who are already sick or have pre-existing conditions. We have to, as a society, recognize that everybody should be covered so everybody can be covered, and those who will need the health care will be able to get access to it.
When people are trying to discourage young people or others from getting health insurance coverage, they want this whole thing to fail so that millions of people will still be without insurance coverage and the insurance companies will be able to continue to discriminate and pick and choose who they will cover, and discard the others.
PM: Do you think the political climate has made it more difficult or discouraging for young people to try to get involved in public service?
No question about it. I’ve been in government service for over 35 years, and when I entered it, I did so with the idea that public service is a noble profession. I can see why many young people would be discouraged from going into politics at the present time.
But they shouldn’t be discouraged. If we’re going to have a future with our country’s democratic institutions, it’s got to be with people willing to fight for the Constitution, and the idea that the people make the decisions, and that government can play an important role — must play an important role — to help those who cannot help themselves, so that we have an opportunity for everybody in our society to go to the fullest extent possible.
PM: What do [young people] exhibit that makes you hopeful?
I think a lot of young people don’t take things at face value. So when they’re told by somebody not to do something, I think that probably will get them more interested in trying to find out what they’re being told not to do, and what is the real motive of somebody who’s telling them. And with that kind of curiosity and unwillingness to take things at face value, I think the strategy of those who are trying to undermine the health care law and deny young people and others the insurance coverage that they ought to have will not succeed.
PM: [The next] generation of congressional leaders, what issues do you think that we will be able to tackle that the current members of Congress have proven unable?
At the moment, we’re unable to do much of anything. But I think one of the most important issues of our time is climate change.
I think climate change is an issue that young people can be clearly affected by, because it’s not something theoretical for the future. It’s happening right now. And if we add more greenhouse gases, more carbon, and other pollution in the air, we have to recognize it’s being added to the hundreds of years of accumulation of those greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at the present time. And if we ignore the problem, we are going to have so much accumulation that we won’t be able to prevent the inevitable disasters that climate change will bring, far beyond what we’re already seeing — with hurricanes, and droughts, and storms, and oceans rising, and everything else connected with it.
So it’s going to be tremendously disruptive, not just because we’ll experience severe weather, but we’ll see famine, we’re going to see more violence, we’re going to see new diseases, and young people have to be concerned about that. The present leadership in the House of Representatives refuses to even believe the science about climate change, even though I’m sure that they understand that these predictions are coming from the most reputable scientists in the world, and they won’t even hold a hearing to listen to the scientists.
So I think your generation of people that might want to go into public office will not stand for this denying the science, ignoring the future, and protecting the coal and oil and fossil-fuel industries from the changes that they have to make.
How about gay rights?
I’m impressed that that has moved as quickly as it has. It has, I think, to a great extent, been because of young peoples’ acceptance of the fact that they don’t think it’s a big deal if two people of the same sex want to love each other and commit to each other in a marital relationship. And the rest of society is catching on very quickly in most parts of the country, but there are large parts of the country where that’s not changing at all.
So I think that issue, like any matter of discrimination against people, for any reason that would hinder their moving forward with their lives, is something that I think young people will want to be against — whether it’s discrimination because of race, or sex, or sexual preference, or financial inability to be able to get an education and to get the kinds of jobs that will give them and their families a chance at the American dream, and that’s to move up the economic ladder.
On the issue of youth homelessness, it’s been shown through studies that youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness, particularly in the state of California. What are your thoughts on the matter, and what steps are being taken that you support?
I think that we have done a great disservice to a lot of Americans, and no one gets hurt more often than young people when we have the Congress talking about cutting back on food stamps — they’re literally taking food out of the mouths of young children, women and children. When they talk about cutting off people from unemployment benefits, it hurts the family and it hurts the children. When they want to cut back on spending for education, children are the ones that are hurt. And when families cannot even sustain themselves economically, it leads to disruptive homes and homelessness. And again, the children are often the ones who suffer the most.
Is there anything else you want to say to America’s young people?
My advice is: Don't give up on this country. This is the greatest country in the world. We’re going through a difficult time. But they ought to be proud of the fact that they can make a difference. And they should look not with the frustration of things that are not going right, but look at some of the things that are working. And I think they should admire the president of the United States, who is fighting for them.