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Lobbying World Still Taking Measure of New Chairman

With iterations of his health care proposals expected to reach President Barack Obama’s desk by Easter recess, but his cap-and-trade deal headed nowhere this Congress, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) may soon be batting .500 on the top items on his legislative agenda.

In the same way, he’s earned mixed marks from lobbyists gauging his ability to play nice with K Street.

“There’s very little debate about what common-sense legislation could be because it’s one way or the highway,” a Democratic lobbyist groused. “There’s just no opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse.”

Not long after Obama won the White House, Waxman staged a highly publicized challenge to then-Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), ultimately seizing the gavel from the 28-term Member in November 2008. Now, more than a year into his tenure, corporate lobbyists and consumer advocates alike credit Waxman for bringing seasoned staffers to the panel but criticize his draconian leadership style that they say stifles the legislative process.

“There are times you may grow a little frustrated by the fact that the Waxman staff stakes out a harder ideological line,” a Dingell-staffer-turned-lobbyist said. “But in terms of dealing with them, negotiating with them, it’s always been a very professional operation.”

“The thing that Waxman and Dingell have in common is that they both have long-serving, experienced staffs — these are not rookies,” the lobbyist continued. “Apart from the occasional ideological differences that surface, lobbying the committee now is like lobbying the committee before in that you’re dealing with very smart Congressional staffers.”

Despite his liberal bent, Waxman appears to be frustrating consumer advocates and other left-leaning organizations, who are already suffering from a degree of buyer’s remorse not yet a full term since he challenged Dingell. While acknowledging the panel’s “professional staff,” a consumer rights lobbyist otherwise panned Waxman’s job performance, calling last year’s climate change bill “fatally flawed.”

“The change in [committee] leadership was really about climate change and that’s what dominated the first half of 2009,” the lobbyist said. “We were extremely disturbed on what went on … the way he rammed a piece of garbage bill was absolutely stunning.”

“Our relationships with staff have been severely strained,” the lobbyist continued. “It was amazing the conformity Waxman exercised on the environmental nongovernmental organization community.”

Another lobbyist, a Democrat, described the Waxman-Dingell differences as “night and day,” saying that “you just don’t want to fight all the time.” The lobbyist also said that the lawmaker’s reputation as an open-minded liberal belies Waxman’s general hostility toward corporate priorities.

“Whether it’s climate, energy or health care, these are folks who have been up there for a long time, they’ve been waiting their turn, they have all of their ideas written already and they want to go forward,” the lobbyist said. “That’s what we did on health care, that’s what we’re probably going to do with another energy bill, and that’s what we did on climate.”

“Even if you come to the table with thoughtful ideas, it’s difficult to break though,” the lobbyist continued. “Now, that puts [us] in the position of working with discreet groups of Members who are willing to have those conversations … oftentimes you have to make a run at the chairman through his Members.”

Other Energy and Commerce lobbyists agree. With power consolidated around Waxman, environmental groups and other left-leaning causes often channel their gripes through panel liberals, while business groups are close with the panel’s Democratic moderates.

“Know your Blue Dogs and know your progressives,” a Democratic lobbyist said.

The lobbyist conceded that Waxman has made good on quiet promises to leadership that he would be a consensus-builder as chairman — but not on every issue.

“When he campaigned for this gavel, he said he was going to be in the spirit of [House Financial Services Chairman] Barney Frank [D-Mass.],” the lobbyist said. “He’s listened to the moderates and made sure that bills had consensus … to a certain extent, he did that on climate change but he did not do that on health care reform.”

The lobbyist continued: “In health care, he’s had his mind made up since the 1970s.”

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