WASHINGTON—He's not as high profile or as flamboyant as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who would become the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives if Democrats win control on Election Day.
He doesn't promise the drama of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who would take over the House Judiciary Committee and has talked since 2003 of impeaching President Bush.
Yet if you want to watch a Democrat who could give the Bush White House hell for the next two years, keep an eye on Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
You might cheer him on. You might hate him. But you won't be bored.
A stranger to many Americans, the 67-year-old Waxman would become chairman of the House Government Reform Committee if the Democrats take over the House. He's one of the shrewdest, most effective inside players in Congress. And armed with the committee's subpoena power, he'd force the Bush administration to spend much of its last two years in office answering questions about its first six.
For one, he'd haul in the vice president's staff and energy industry executives to find out what went on behind closed doors when Dick Cheney and the industry wrote the administration's energy policy in 2001.
For another, he'd summon the Commerce Department brass to answer reports that they manipulate media coverage of global warming, including steering an MSNBC reporter away from a climate expert who believed the problem is worsening.
And he's certain to probe into abuses by contractors in Iraq, for he has criticized Halliburton and other such firms continually since 2003 for various schemes that he says ripped off U.S. taxpayers.
Giving Waxman the gavel would be a dramatic shift for the House, which all but dropped congressional oversight of the executive branch when a Republican administration was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2001.
It would also be a shift for Waxman, who spent the 1990s largely defending the Clinton administration and accusing the Republican House of overreaching in its investigations.
"When President Clinton was in office, congressional committees were themselves on steroids and investigated every possible allegation of wrongdoing, no matter how small," Waxman said at a recent panel sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank.
"But when President Bush took over, oversight virtually ceased. No matter how big the issue, Congress now often looks away."
Since then, he said, "we've had an imperial presidency and a subservient Congress for the last five years, and the costs to the nation have been enormous."
Waxman is a veteran of three decades in the House, a member of the large Democratic class elected in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. A liberal's liberal whose wealthy district includes Beverly Hills, he managed to win expansion of Medicaid health coverage for poor children between 1984 and 1990—as an unfunded mandate to state governments, which consumed ever-larger chunks of state budgets.
He spent years on the Energy and Commerce Committee, fighting to preserve and then expand clean-air laws so important to his Los Angeles constituents. For years one of the best shows in town was watching Waxman wrangle with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who fought against clean-air laws on behalf of his Detroit hometown's interest, the auto industry.
In the end, Waxman and other environmentalists prevailed and Congress passed a new Clean Air Act—with major help from the first President Bush.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)