From Auburn Hills to Beverly Hills

by William Yeatman on November 24, 2008

The House Democratic Conference on Thursday voted 137 to 122 to replace Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) as Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).  This marks a huge change in legislative strategy for the Democratic majority on a wide range of issues, including energy and global warming.  Spokesmen for most major environmental pressure groups were ecstatic.  

Dingell was first elected in a special election in 1955 (upon the death of his father, who first won the seat in 1932) and in February will become the longest-serving Member of the House in history.  He served as Chairman of the committee from 1981 until the Republicans took control in 1995.  During that period, Dingell turned a major committee into the most powerful in Congress by stealing jurisdiction on issue after issue from other committees.  At the height of his powers, Dingell was the most formidable and feared Member of Congress.  Dingell returned as Chairman when the Democrats regained the majority in the 2006 elections. 
Dingell has always been a big government liberal.  He is also a serious legislator.  Over the decades, he put together enormous bills that created new government spending or regulatory programs.  He paid careful attention to the details and worked strenuously to build broad coalitions to pass with large majorities what was originally considered controversial legislation.  Just on environmental issues, Dingell was one of the chief sponsors or movers behind the Wilderness Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Clean Air Act of 1972, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act of 1977, Safe Drinking Water Amendments of 1986, and Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

But that was then.  Now, the Democratic majority in the House has moved far to the left of Dingell.  Dingell represents the western suburbs of Detroit, including Dearborn, where Ford Motor has its headquarters just outside the district, and Auburn Hills, where Chrysler has its headquarters.  Henry Waxman has represented Beverly Hills since the 1974 election, when Democrats won huge majorities following the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation.  Rather than representing members of the United Auto Workers, Waxman represents the interests and sensibilities of movie and teevee and pop music stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Britney Spears.  But he’s a lot smarter than the typical movie star turned environmental activist.  He is also one of the most dedicated, hardest working, toughest, and most aggressive legislators in Congress. 

Being intelligent, dedicated, hard working, tough, and aggressive is an admirable package, but it doesn’t guarantee success.  Waxman is also a hard left ideological purist who is completely out of touch with the concerns of most Americans. 

My own view is that the chances of enacting cap-and-trade legislation went down considerably when House Democrats chose Waxman over Dingell. Make no mistake, Henry Waxman is a formidable opponent, but he is not the heavyweight legislator that John Dingell is.  He is too rigid ideologically, which makes him less capable of conciliating the wide range of interests that must be brought together in order to pass big, controversial pieces of legislation.

As I wrote in a statement for the press: “This should provide a loud wake-up call to American business leaders that the 111th Congress is not going to play nicely with them on energy rationing policies.  I hope that those who have counseled that ‘if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’ will now realize that they are on the menu and they’d better get as far away from the table as quickly as they can.  The cap-and-trade bill that Chairman Dingell proposed this fall would dramatically raise energy prices for American consumers and producers. Chairman Waxman introduced a cap-and-trade bill in this Congress that would send us back to the Stone Age.”

Environmental pressure group leaders may be excited now, but I won’t be surprised if they’re disappointed with the results.    

Over on the Senate side, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, announced that she will introduce two major bills  that would fulfil major parts of President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign agenda.  The first, which Obama barely mentioned in the general election campaign, is a new cap-and-trade bill.  Unlike the Lieberman-Warner bill that crashed on the Senate floor in early June, Boxer’s bill will simply direct the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.  The Congress will let EPA figure out the messy details.  The second is the “green jobs” bill that Obama talked a lot about in the campaign.  It would provide for up to $15 billion a year for a decade to subsidize renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures, and to train people for promising careers, such as replacing incandescent with compact fluorescent light bulbs. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: