This piece is excerpted from remarks Rep. Henry Waxman gave at Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture delivered at USC April 23.
What drew me to politics was the esteem I had always felt for public service and the commitment of our religious values to justice, human and civil rights, peace and the importance of helping all people be able to realize their full potential. And, of course, the essential task for our nation to be engaged in the world as a force for good.
As a Jewish congressman, I have been mindful that even in America, there have only been 157 Jews who have ever served in the House of Representatives; that I was the first Jew ever to have been elected from Southern California and the first in California in 40 years when I was elected in 1974. Today, we have 24 Jewish members, many from districts with very few Jewish constituents and seven from Southern California.
I am proud to have played a role as a congressman in events that impacted the Jewish people. My wife, Janet and I were in Egypt and Israel when, after meeting with both President [Anwar] Sadat and Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin, Sadat came to Jerusalem. We sat is amazement as we heard his speech in the Knesset. We fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews, visited Refuseniks, pressured Soviet leaders, and saw the doors open to allow them to leave. Janet was an instrumental player in the efforts to help Syrian Jews leave. We were in Israel as the airlift of Ethiopians arrived in Israel. I was able to attend the White House ceremonies for the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the signings of the ill-fated Oslo agreement between Arafat and Rabin; the dinner in honor of diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan. Last August, we were in Israel as it undertook the difficult disengagement from the Gaza.
While I have always had a strong Jewish identity, only as an adult have I explored more deeply the Jewish religion. The Jewish way is to have us elevate ourselves and refine our character through the observance of mitzvot. Judaism is much more about acting and doing the right thing, rather than believing the right things. Ethics is at Judaism’s core. God’s primary concern is not that we mindlessly follow ritual, but act decently. Ritual is to help us do that.
Actions and how we live our lives and treat others is at the heart of the matter. To aid us along these lines, we have specific obligations. Tzedakah, which means righteousness, not charity, helps bring justice to others and sanctity to ourselves. The discipline of kashrut raises the most mundane of routine acts into a religious reminder that we are distinctive and the mere physical satisfaction of our appetite can be a spiritual act. Shabbat gives sanctity to time to refresh our body and our soul. It has great meaning for me primarily to remind me, no matter how important I may or am supposed to be, the world can get along without me quite well for one day. It puts a lot of things into perspective.
Jewish observance is a check on our arrogance, self-importance, rationalizations to do what we want. We are required to fulfill the ethical commands and to choose to overcome our natural inclinations that are not worthy.
I have looked at the issue of governmental power in a similar way. Our U.S. Constitution tries to put in place a mechanism for checks and balances because our founders did not trust the concentration of power and the arrogance and corruption that can come with it. By the way, Jewish sources also resist an absolute power structure. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik referred to a well-known axiom that power tends to corrupt the one who wields it. The noblest, best-intentioned ruler is affected by the glory, tribute, and power of his office. This may cause him to step over the boundary of legitimate authority. The human ego is likely to be distorted and intoxicated by a status, which has no external limits.
For the last six years, we’ve essentially had one-party rule in Washington. And for the last decade, the Republican congressional leadership has governed with the idea that the most important job for them was to keep the Republicans together instead of trying to seek bipartisanship.
Next week, the Republicans will put forth a bill in the House for lobbying reform, in response to the convictions of Duke Cunningham, and the indictments and convictions of a number of staff people around Tom Delay, who also has been indicted. The problem runs far deeper than can be cured by superficial reform. The problem starts not with lobbyists, but with Congress itself.
Look at the Medicare prescription drug bill. Negotiations were behind closed doors; Democrats excluded. Key estimates about the bill’s costs were withheld by a government official who was told he would be fired if he disclosed the information. Two key negotiators ended up working for the drug companies after the bill passed. And when the bill was short of votes on the House floor, the 15-minute roll call was extended to three hours. A Republican member was offered a bribe to vote for it. Now, seniors are trying to make sense of the law and how it affects them, while the drug and insurance companies are coming out the big winners, as the legislation is projected to cost billions more than originally thought.
What about our checks and balances? What about self restraint and ethical guidelines? It is as if recklessness is invited because some leaders do not think they will be held accountable.
Oversight is important, and if done right it can find the truth and bring real change.
At the same time the Congress is refusing to do oversight, the Bush administration acted, even before Sept. 11, 200l, with greater secrecy than any other in history, exceeding even Richard Nixon’s.
Last year, Congressional Quarterly, the nonpartisan magazine reported that:
“Administration secrecy has become the rule rather than the exception, a phenomenon that lawmakers, journalists, public interest groups and even ordinary Americans say has interfered with their ability to participate in government and to hold it accountable for its actions.”
Congressional Quarterly went on to note that some of the documents the administration has withheld seem to have little to do with the war on terrorism and a lot to do with keeping embarrassing information from the public.
There’s no doubt that some things must be kept secret. Our national security demands some information must be kept secret for the good of all. But what we have here is an obsession for secrecy.
Think about the secrets that we now know about: the wiretapping of Americans; a network of foreign prisons; information about detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Sept. 11 documents proving that the White House had been warned abut the use of hijacked airplanes as weapons
I do not intend to be partisan. But I do believe that the leadership of our government in both Congress and the Executive Branch has turned away from core values we have as Americans and as Jews.
Rep. Henry Waxman is a Democrat representing the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles.