BOXER, Barbara

Image Courtesy of the Member
1940–

Biography

A New Yorker by birth and a Californian by choice, Barbara Boxer served in Congress from the Golden State for 34 years, including 10 years in the United States House of Representatives and 24 in the United States Senate. An advocate for families, children, consumers, and the environment, Boxer retired from the Senate at the end of the 114th Congress (2015–2017). She had an understated, straightforward approach to the legislative process, which she outlined in one of her farewell interviews. “It’s very easy,” she said. “You introduce legislation that moves us forward. You fight bad legislation.”1

Barbara Boxer was born Barbara Levy in Brooklyn, New York, on November 11, 1940, to Ira Levy and Sophie Silvershein Levy. She graduated with a BA from Brooklyn College in 1962 and married Stewart Boxer. The family relocated to northern California in 1965, where the Boxers raised two children: Doug and Nicole. Prior to her marriage, Boxer was a stockbroker and economic researcher for Wall Street securities firms.2 In 2005 the Boxers moved from Marin County to Rancho Mirage in southern California.3

Boxer first jumped into politics in 1968 while doing volunteer work for the Eugene Joseph McCarthy presidential campaign. In 1970 she helped found an antiwar organization, the Marin Alternative, to protest the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. Boxer worked for the Pacific Sun newspaper as a reporter and associate editor from 1972 to 1974. And from 1974 to 1976, Boxer worked for Congressman John Lowell Burton who represented the California district encompassing Marin County. In 1972 she ran for a seat on the Marin County board of supervisors, losing to the incumbent Republican. But four years later, in 1976, she won election to the board, and served as its first chairwoman.4 “She faced a lot of adversity from people who didn’t treat her the way they would treat a man,” said Sam Chapman, a longtime aide. “But she didn’t give in. It’s her nature to get fired up. And you knew she was going somewhere.”5

In 1982 John Burton unexpectedly decided to retire from the U.S. House and endorsed Boxer to take his place. In the general election, she defeated Republican Dennis McQuaid with 52 percent of the vote. She faced no serious challenges in any of her subsequent re-elections to the House.6

Boxer served in the majority during each of her five terms in the House. Her initial committee assignments were to Government Operations (98th–99th and 101st Congresses [1983–1987, 1989–1991]); Merchant Marine and Fisheries (98th Congress [1983–1985]); and, briefly, to Interior and Insular Affairs (1983) and to the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families (1983). She later served on Budget (99th–101st Congresses [1985–1991]); Armed Services (100th Congress [1987–1989]); and the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction (1987). Boxer also became chairwoman of the Government Activities and Transportation Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee.

Boxer gained a reputation as a liberal firebrand in the House. Her Small Business and Federal Procurement Competition Enhancement Act became law in 1984, improving the likelihood that small businesses would win government contracts.7 And during an Armed Services Committee hearing that year, she made headlines about wasteful Pentagon spending by revealing that the military had purchased a coffee pot for $7,622. In the lead-up to the Gulf War in 1990, Boxer took a public stand in opposition to U.S. involvement. She was also part of a bipartisan group of women Representatives who marched on the Senate to demand extended hearings on Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.8 “She stands up and fights for what she believes in,” observed California Representative George Miller, a colleague from the Bay Area. “And she doesn’t back up a step.”9

In 1992 both of California’s Senate seats opened after Alan Cranston decided not to run for a fourth term and Pete Wilson was elected governor back home. Boxer declared for Cranston’s seat while San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein sought to fill Wilson’s remaining term. In a three-way Democratic primary against a former lieutenant governor and a fellow U.S. Representative, Boxer won the nomination with 44 percent of the vote. In the general election, she defeated Bruce Herschensohn, a conservative Los Angeles media commentator by five points, 48 percent to 43 percent.10 Boxer credited the Thomas protest for raising awareness of the lack of women in the Senate. “Without Anita having the courage of her convictions, and without those of us walking over, I never would have made it to the Senate ever because no one really knew in the country how few women [in the Senate] there were.”11

Boxer won her two subsequent re-elections to the Senate by much more comfortable margins. In 1998 she defeated state treasurer Matt Fong with 53 percent of the vote. And in 2004, she beat back a challenge by California’s secretary of state Bill Jones, winning by 20 points, 58 percent to 38 percent. In her final re-election in 2010, Boxer, with the help of President Barack Obama who flew to California to campaign with her, defeated businesswoman Carly Fiorina with 52 percent of the vote.12

Boxer’s Senate service stretched over 12 Congresses and lasted from 1993 to 2017. She served in the majority for five Congresses and in the minority for six. The evenly divided 107th Congress (2001–2003), began under brief Democratic control (with outgoing Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. as the tie-breaking vote). It reverted to Republican control when Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney was sworn in to office on January 20 (giving the GOP the tie-breaking vote), but reverted back to Democratic control in June 2001 when James Merrill Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to register as an Independent.

Boxer’s initial Senate committee assignments included Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (103rd–105th Congresses [1993–1999]); Budget (103rd–106th Congresses [1993–2001]); Environment and Public Works (103rd–114th Congresses [1993–2017]); and the Joint Economic Committee (103rd Congress [1993–1995]). She was later assigned to Appropriations (105th Congress [1997–1999]); Foreign Relations (106th–114th Congresses [1999–2017]); and Commerce, Science, and Transportation (107th–114th Congresses [2001–2017]). Boxer also served on the Special Committee to Investigate Whitewater Development Corporation and Related Matters (104th Congress [1995–1997]) and the Select Committee on Ethics (110th–114th Congresses [2007–2017]). Boxer was chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee from 2007 to 2015.

The House culture Boxer came from may have favored majority rule, but the Senate operated differently. “In the House, if I could just convince my side, it got in the bill,” Boxer said. “Here [in the Senate] it’s a whole other thing. You’ve got to be able to convince everybody.”13 Individual Senators wielded far more power over the legislative process and just a single Senator could prevent an idea or an amendment from being considered. “The difference is even as a freshman in the Senate, you have so much more power. You have as much power as committee chairmen have in the House.”14

As Boxer worked to find consensus, she did not shy away from also exercising her individual power. Early in her Senate career, she held the Senate Floor for three days in a row in order to block legislation against plans to gut environmental and health standards. “People thought Barbara Boxer was pretty insane to be up there alone filibustering that issue,” said Lynn Golman of the Environmental Protection Agency. “But she wasn’t intimidated.”15 And in 2005, Boxer used the confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice’s nomination as Secretary of State to reiterate her opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policies and the Iraq War. “I will … not shrink from questioning a war that was not built on truth,” she announced.16

Working on the Environment and Public Works Committee provided Boxer with ample opportunities to work across the aisle, and infrastructure programs led to several partnerships.17 In an era of heightened partisanship, Boxer may have disagreed sharply over policy with Republicans on the committee, but she had strong personal relationships with many of them. “We really like each other,” Boxer said about Oklahoma Senator James Mountain Inhofe, who often opposed Boxer on climate change issues. “And I think, also, what’s important is we know how strongly we feel when we oppose each other, but we never surprise each other by going around someone’s back and sneaking something into a bill.” Inhofe agreed, “You can disagree with someone and love ‘em anyway.”18

In 2007, for instance, Boxer and Inhofe worked to shepherd a long overdue water resources and infrastructure bill through the Senate. Although President George W. Bush vetoed the popular bill, both the House and Senate overrode that veto with a two-thirds majority.19 It was another seven years before Congress passed a large water bill again, but in 2014, with Boxer able to round up a bipartisan majority in the Senate (her committee approved it unanimously), the Water Resources Development Act became law in 2014. The negotiations over the bill were made more delicate by the fact that Congress had agreed to omit earmarks. Traditionally such bills had enjoyed broad support when Members of Congress could include funding for specific projects in their states and districts; without those incentives, negotiations became more fraught.20

It was also Boxer’s commitment to environmental issues as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee that led to a major legislative initiative to mitigate climate change. In 2007 the committee approved S. 2191, sponsored by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John William Warner of Virginia. The bill established a cap-and-trade program which placed quotas on greenhouse-gas emissions but allowed businesses to buy and sell unused shares of the emissions quota depending on their need. Companies that cut emissions could then sell their reserve allowances at a profit to other companies which needed extra cushion to meet federal regulations. Under Boxer’s leadership, the committee’s amended bill received the support of a slim bipartisan majority. A later Republican filibuster prevented the bill from being considered in the full Senate.21

Boxer revisited the cap-and-trade bill in the next Congress when Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Operating on a tight deadline before a United Nations environmental summit in Copenhagen, and with Republicans boycotting the committee hearings, Boxer used a procedural maneuver to pass the bill out of committee without the votes of its Republican members. The bill was missing several details that Boxer hoped to fill in later, but the procedural move she used to push the bill out of committee angered Republicans, and it was not long before the effort ground to a halt.22

Alongside the broader scope of her tenure as head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, a few of Boxer’s own environmental bills became law. She managed to tighten the federal definition of “lead free,” help control the spread of invasive species, and named a 12,000-foot mountain in the eastern Sierras after conservationist and Olympic skier Andrea Lawrence.23

Over the course of her Senate career, Boxer had several other notable legislative achievements. She opened federal funds to states looking to “retrofit” bridges to better withstand earthquakes, opened scientific research into organ transplants between HIV-positive patients, improved mental health care for female veterans, and reaffirmed and strengthened America’s strategic relationship with Israel.24

Boxer announced her decision not to run for re-election in January 2015, but she made clear that she would remain politically active. “I am never going to retire—the work is too important, but I will not be running for the Senate in 2016,” she said. “I want to come home to the state that I love so much: California.”25 In the round of exit interviews that followed her announcement she said, “There is a time when you want the next generation to step in and step up.”26

Footnotes

1“In Exit Interview, Sen. Barbara Boxer Considers Path Forward for Democrats,” 21 December 2016, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/2016/12/21/506483910/in-exit-interview-sen-barbara-boxer-considers-path-forward-for-democrats.

2“Barbara Boxer,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774– Present, https://bioguide.congress.gov; Congressional Directory, 98th Cong. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1983): 15; Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2015): 159.

3Erica Felci, “Barbara Boxer Finds Peace in Coachella Valley,” 17 August 2013, Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA): n.p.

4Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 159; Congressional Directory, 98th Cong.: 15.

5Bob Drogin, “Boxer’s Tenacity Cuts both Ways,” 21 October 2010, Los Angeles Times: A1.

6Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

7Small Business and Federal Procurement Competition Enhancement Act, PL 98-577, 98 Stat. 3066 (1984); House Committee on Small Business, Small Business Breakouts, 98th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 528 (1983).

8Nathan Heller, “Barbara Boxer’s California,” 13 January 2015, New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/barbara-boxers-california; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 159.

9Drogin, “Boxer’s Tenacity Cuts both Ways.”

10Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 159–160; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

11“The Honorable Barbara Boxer Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (29 November 2018): 25. The interview transcript is available online.

12Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 159–160; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

13Mike Zapler, “Boxer an Aggressive, at Times Antagonistic, Presence in Courtly Senate,” 10 October 2010, Oakland Tribune: n.p. For more on the differences between the House and Senate, see Ross Baker, House and Senate, 4th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

14“Boxer Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 29–30.

15Drogin, “Boxer’s Tenacity Cuts Both Ways.”

16John Nichols, “Boxer Rebellion Spreads,” 26 January 2005, The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/boxer-rebellion-spreads/; Heller, “Barbara Boxer’s California.”

17Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 161. See also Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 63.

18Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 160; Politics in America, 2012: 63; Alex Gangitano, “Boxer’s Advice for Dealing with Trump: Look at Me and Inhofe,” 14 December 2016, Roll Call: n.p. See also Matthew Daly, “Senate’s Odd Couple: Boxer, Inhofe Forge Unlikely Alliance, 25 September 2016, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A4.

19Jan Austin, ed., “Congress Overrides Veto, Enacts Bill Filled with District Water Projects,” CQ Almanac 2007, 63rd ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2008): ch. 18, 3–5, https://library.cqpress.com; Water Resources Development Act of 2007, PL 110-114, 121 Stat. 1041 (2007).

20“Both Chambers Advance Water Bills,” CQ Almanac 2013, 69th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2014): ch. 7, 7–10, https:// library.cqpress.com; Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, PL 113-121, 128 Stat. 1193 (2014).

21Congress and the Nation 2005–2008 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010): 495–497; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 160; Jan Austin, ed., “Senate Republicans Sink Climate Bill,” CQ Almanac 2008, 64th ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2009): ch. 8, p. 6, http://library.cqpress.com.

22Jan Austin, ed., “House Reaches Milestone with Cap-and-Trade Climate Change Bill,” CQ Almanac 2009, 65th ed. (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call Group, 2010): ch. 10, p. 3–7, http://library.cqpress.com.

23Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, PL 111-380, 124 Stat. 4131 (2011); A bill to amend the Federal Water Control Act to reauthorize the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Restoration Program, to designate certain Federal buildings, and for other purposes, PL 112-237, 126 Stat. 1628 (2012); Mt. Andrea Lawrence Designation Act of 2011, PL 112-259, 126 State. 2415 (2013); Bettina Boxell, “Eastern Sierra Peak Will Be Named Mt. Andrea Lawrence,” 21 December 2012, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/science/la-xpm-2012-dec-21-la-sci-sn-mt-andrea-lawrence-20121221-story.html.

24A bill to amend title 23, United States Code, to permit the use of funds under the highway bridge replacement and rehabilitation program for seismic retrofit of bridges, and for other purposes, PL 103-220, 108 Stat. 100 (1994); HIV Organ Policy Equity Act, PL 113-51, 127 Stat. 579 (2013); Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, PL 114-188, 130 Stat. 611 (2016); United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, PL 113-296, 128 Stat. 4075 (2014).

25Heller, “Barbara Boxer’s California”; Seema Mehta and Evan Halper, “A Life in Politics: The Fighter,” 9 January 2015, Los Angeles Times: AA1; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 159.

26Alex Gangitano, “Take Five: Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer,” 14 December 2016, Roll Call: n.p.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of California, Berkeley
The Bancroft Library

Berkeley, CA
Papers: Congressional papers.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Boxer, Barbara. The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life. New York: Hachette Books, 2016.

Boxer, Barbara, et al., Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate. New York: Perennial, 2001.

Boxer, Barbara. Strangers in the Senate: Politics and the New Revolution of Women in America. Washington, D.C.: National Press Books, 1994.

"Barbara Boxer," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

___, with Mary-Rose Hayes. A Time to Run: A Novel. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.

___, with Mary-Rose Hayes. Blind Trust: A Novel. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2009.

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Barbara Boxer, United States Congresswoman, 1983-1993, United States Senator, 1993-2017. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2017.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Government Operations
    • Government Activities and Transportation - Chair
  • House Committee - Interior and Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction
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