Plenty of politicians are described as “a driving force for change,” and so is Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman ’61, J.D. ’64 on the jacket of his 2009 book, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works. But Waxman’s got something most of the others do not: a real claim to that fame. Just read his clippings.

“In the altered landscape that is Washington, there’s a new contender for the title of Scariest Guy in Town,” trumpeted Time magazine about the California lawmaker. “He stands 5 feet 5, speaks softly and has all the panache of your parents’ dentist. But when it comes to putting powerful people on the hot seat, there’s no one tougher and more tenacious than veteran California Congressman Henry Waxman.”

And the Christian Science Monitor called the indefatigable lawmaker an “impeccable interrogator” who put the watch in watchdog and toppled an intractable old bull on his way to becoming chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Moreover, Waxman did all of it without losing sight of the folks back home — Los Angeles’ 30th Congressional District, which includes UCLA. And he knew he would do all of that — or something like it — before he even ran his first campaign.

“I was always interested in politics,” Waxman says about a career spent almost exclusively in public office. “My family was interested in it. I followed it at a very young age. When I got to UCLA, I was quick to join the Young Democrats.”

Even among Republicans, Waxman garners respect, no mean feat in a ferociously polarized Beltway culture. “He’s very good at what he does; that’s why you get a lot of Republicans who are not fond of him,” says former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1998 to 2002 and served with Waxman until retiring from Congress in 2008.

Former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyoming) once described Waxman as “tougher than a boiled owl.” He has become known as the Hill’s top investigator, dubbed by The Nation magazine as “the Democrats’ Eliot Ness” — a moniker that has stuck and was on full view this summer, when he grilled and embarrassed BP executives over what they knew about the dangers of their drilling practices in the Gulf of Mexico prior to April’s epic oil spill.

They never had a chance.

Speaking Truth to Power — and the People

Waxman first earned the “beware of watchdog” badge by taking down the major tobacco executives who in 1994 testified under oath, at his insistence, that nicotine was not addictive. Once the House Government Reform Committee became his territory in 1997, Republicans, now in the majority, rarely let him off his leash. Nonetheless, he spent eight years trying to submit the administration of President George W. Bush to vigorous congressional oversight. He launched investigations of White House ties to Enron, contract abuses in Iraq by Halliburton, among others, and fought to publicize the membership of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2001 energy task force.

Compared to those challenges, the BP executives were a light snack for the lawmaker. With his usual obsession for preparation and the collection of reams and reams of data, Waxman unearthed e-mails, studies and warnings from concerned employees within BP to outside contractors, including his old friend Halliburton, which ironically provided some of his most damning evidence. The BP hearings brought together two of Waxman’s passions: holding people accountable and advocating for stronger environmental policies.

“Part of this reform must be legislation to put teeth into our regulatory system,” Waxman said during the June hearing. “But part must also be a transition to a clean energy economy. We are addicted to oil and this addiction is fouling our beaches, polluting our atmosphere and undermining our national security. We can’t snap our fingers and transform our energy economy overnight, but we need to start down the path to a clean energy future. If we don’t, we will be confronted with an even worse spill 20 years from now.”

Waxman’s interest in environmental policy traces back to when he first came to Congress in 1975. He sat on Energy’s Health and Environment Subcommittee for years and was its chairman for 16. He was a primary author of 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that tackled smog, toxic air pollution, acid rain and ozone layer damage. He also sponsored the 1986 and 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments, the 1996 Food Quality Act, the Radon Abatement Act and the Lead Contamination Control Act.

Passion, Party and Power

Waxman is an unapologetic liberal who readily admits his left-leaning district affords him a luxury few lawmakers enjoy. “I have a secure Democratic district, which has given me the ability to focus on national and international issues, which, I think, is what my constituents want me to do,” he says. “I always have to evaluate, as a representative, the views of my constituents, but I’ve always thought my job is to make a decision — an informed decision — as to how to vote because opinion polls don’t reflect the information that I have available to me.”

Waxman’s political views were clearly influenced by his parents, as he told Scripps Howard in a 2007 interview: “Franklin Roosevelt was revered in our home, as was President Truman.” And he clearly favors Roosevelt’s activist approach, telling the Washington Times in 2008, “I know some people don’t, but I believe in government. I believe government can make a big difference in people’s lives.”

Starting, of course, with the good citizens of the 30th Congressional District. For instance, Waxman says he had Los Angeles’ notorious smog in mind when he went to work on environmental issues. And both he and his staff are quick to rattle off statistics to back up their claims. For example, in 1984, West Los Angeles exceeded the ozone standard 55 days out of the year, according to the California Air Resources Board website. In 2008, it exceeded the standard only eight times.

With his antenna already tuned to eco-issues, Waxman’s focus was turning to climate change legislation even before the BP spill. “Our committee has passed a bill to transform our energy system to make us less dependent on foreign oil, which I think is a national security issue as well as an energy issue,” he explains. “We also have as our objective to create new jobs as we reduce the carbon pollution from the use of energy, both on the electricity and transportation sides. Scientists are even telling us that if we don’t act and make reductions in the carbon emissions, we may find ourselves facing tipping points that will cause damage that will be irreparable.”

But even Eliot Ness had to pay his dues. And as a junior member in the ’80s, Waxman frequently tangled with Energy and Commerce’s previous Democratic chairman, the imposing John Dingell of Michigan. Dingell is famous for doing whatever it takes to “protect” the U.S. auto industry, even if that means teaming up with a Republican president, as Dingell did when President Ronald Reagan took office. Waxman recounts his first showdown with Dingell in his book, describing it as a classic David vs. Goliath battle. Though Dingell had the advantage of seniority, the chairman’s gavel and an awesome coalition of business interests behind him, Waxman and his small group of allies outmaneuvered the veteran power player. That episode, which Waxman likened to being “confronted by a steamroller,” was just a prelude: Two decades later, Waxman wrested the Energy and Commerce chairmanship from Dingell.

“I challenged the sitting chairman to take over the job because I saw the unique, historical opportunity that may come only once in a lifetime,” Waxman says about that November 2008 coup. “A new president was pressing for big change and such actions really have to happen early on in such an administration.”

Still, Waxman can be a gracious crusader, at least with colleagues, and he says of Dingell, “I have such high admiration and respect for him. I told him, ‘To me you will always be what the model of a committee chairman should be like.’ But he’d been chairman or ranking member for 28 years and was in his 80s; I just thought that at this particular moment I really could do the job that needed to be done.”

The power player also can be generous. He convinced three other committee chairmen to put Dingell’s name first on the historic health-care legislation the House passed earlier this year. It was a gentlemanly gesture, considering Dingell’s personal history with the issue. The very first national health-care bill was co-authored by Dingell’s father decades ago — and his son has reintroduced a national health insurance bill at the start of every new Congress since assuming Dingell the Elder’s seat upon his father’s death in 1955.

“[Waxman’s] never going to embarrass anyone with what he does,” says former GOP lawmaker Davis. “In all my dealings with Henry, it was never about him; it was always about the issues and the people he represents.”