In Capitol Hill’s Rayburn office building, in the private chambers of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, hangs an enormous satellite photograph of the planet Earth. Beneath the picture is a couch, where, according to sources familiar with the committee, long-time Chairman John Dingell is fond of sitting. From that couch, they say, the venerable Michigan Democrat, who has served for 53 years, has been known to point up to the photo and say, “That is the jurisdiction of this committee.”
Now, Dingell is no longer in control of the world.
House Democrats Thursday morning took the remarkable step of ousting Congress’s longest-serving member as head of the powerful energy panel. They replaced Dingell with the more liberal Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.), whose energy plans are more in-line with those of President-elect Barack Obama.
The vote — 137 to 122 — marked a stunning defeat for the party’s seniority system.
Environmentalists, though, are thrilled. For decades, Dingell has fought successfully against efforts to adopt stricter emissions rules and force Detroit’s automakers in the direction of greater fuel-efficiency. With the arrival of an Obama administration next year, many climate-change groups had wondered how the new president would sneak his ambitious energy plans past the powerful head of the energy panel. Now he won’t have to. Waxman, a fiery environmentalist who has butted heads with Dingell on these issues, is seen to symbolize the end of Dingell’s obstructionism.
“It’s a whole new world,” said Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a group formed to fight climate change. “We can now redirect our global-warming policies in ways that otherwise weren’t possible.”
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Waxman said the Congress has “an opportunity that maybe comes only once in a generation,” and that Democrats “needed a change” in energy committee leadership if the party’s climate change goals are to be accomplished. Seniority, he added, must sometimes give way to party goals.
“We are at a unique moment in history,” Waxman said. “Seniority is important, but it should not be a grant of property rights to be chairman for three decades or more.”
Dingell has been either chairman or ranking member of the panel for the past 28 years. In a short statement, he congratulated Waxman, vowing “to work closely” with the new chairman on issues particular to the panel. In a symbolic gesture, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) made Dingell the panel’s chairman emeritus.
Still unclear is the continuing role of committee vice chair Diana DeGette (D-Denver). She backed Dingell in his fight to retain leadership of the panel. Following Waxman’s victory, DeGette released a statement promising her support:
The winds of change have blown through Congress today. I congratulate Chairman Waxman on his selection as Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. I have worked closely with him on issues including the environment and consumer protection and look forward to serving with him to move our nation’s agenda forward. I also pledge to do everything I can to heal any rifts in the committee and the Democratic Caucus.
The struggle between the two legendary Democrats has captivated post-election Washington, but the significance of the power shift, environmentalists say, will extend far beyond the nation’s capital.
“The committee can move much further under Waxman than it ever could under Dingell,” said David Jenkins, director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. “[Dingell] wasn’t willing to go where we needed to go, and obviously, that was why he was challenged — and why he lost.”
While both Dingell and Waxman have introduced bills to tackle global warming, “Waxman will want to take the fight further and faster than Mr. Dingell would,” said Becker, who formerly headed the Sierra Club’s global warming division.
Indeed, Dingell’s proposal would reduce emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. Under Waxman’s plan, 2050 emissions would be cut 80 percent below 1990 levels — the same plan pushed by Obama.
Waxman and Obama are also on the same page when it comes to creation of a “cap-and-trade” system to regulate emissions. Both want to force all large polluters to pay for every ton of carbon emitted. The energy industry, including coal-generating power plants, have fought these strict measures. Protecting the industry, Dingell has floated plans that would give companies some of these pollution credits for free.
Then there’s the enormous issue of fuel-efficiency. In the name of protecting Detroit, Dingell has fought with Pelosi, Waxman and other Democrats over efforts to force U.S. automakers to hike their fleets’ mileage standards. Over Dingell’s objections, Congress passed a bill hiking those standards to 35 miles-per-gallon by 2020. But many Democrats, including Obama, would like to see that figure set substantially higher.
Also significant, Dingell has been a strong ally of Rep. Rick Boucher (D), the Virginia Democrat who heads the energy panel’s Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee. Both Boucher, who represents Virginia’s coal country, and Dingell have been fierce defenders of the coal industry — considered the leading cause of global warming. With Waxman at the helm of the committee, Boucher’s role over energy could be diminished.
The Energy and Commerce Committee also holds great sway over health-care policy — another of Obama’s priorities in 2009. Both Dingell and Waxman have been fierce proponents of providing coverage to all Americans, particularly children.
Waxman said he hasn’t decided what issue he’ll approach first. “The first thing I had to tackle was this contest,” he said.
As an end-run around Dingell, Pelosi created a special panel last year designed specifically to tackle climate change. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), another ardent environmentalist, heads that committee. It’s too early to tell how the climate change committee will interact with Waxman’s energy panel.
Markey’s office did not respond to calls for comment.
Dingell’s loss is another blow in what has been a difficult week for America’s automakers. Executives for the Big Three have lobbied tirelessly on Capitol Hill for $25 billion in emergency aid, but Democratic congressional supporters lack the backing to get the bill through the Senate. Democratic leaders said Thursday that they could return to Washington in December to consider a bill — but neither the White House nor Senate Republicans have shown much willingness to bend.
Democrats, including Obama, have vowed to take up the Detroit bailout in January if Congress fails to act on it this year. With Waxman at the helm of the energy panel, that might be just one of the many priorities the party tackles in 2009.
“We have a unique opportunity,” Waxman said. “We may well turn out to be as historical as the Congress was in 1933.”