henry waxman
Henry Waxman.

House Democrats unceremoniously dethroned John Dingell (D-Mich.) as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, installing Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in his stead — a move that will have resounding implications for climate and energy policy going forward and demonstrates growing strength among the party’s more liberal wing, especially when it comes to climate policy.

Dingell, just three months shy of becoming the longest-serving chair in House history, has long been seen as an ally of industry, especially the automotive sector in his home state. The “Dean” of the House played a key role in the passage of the Clean Air and the Endangered Species acts, but over the years he has approached energy issues in an industry-friendly manner. He’s long-resisted fuel economy increases and other measures to make the automotive industry less environmentally unsound, and supported nuclear power.

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Last month he issued a draft climate bill that, though tougher than enviros were expecting from his committee, appeared likely to be more lenient in practice than other proposals floating around the Hill. Even before his new bill was released, he was accusing the “environmentalists and others — including the do-gooders” of caring too little about industry when it comes to promoting plans to curb emissions. And he wasn’t particularly happy when Speaker Nancy Pelosi created a separate committee on climate change and energy independence, since she didn’t think Dingell was the best candidate to take up that charge.

He’s also taken a fair number of pot-shots at Waxman for taking a tougher environmental view, recently arguing in a radio interview that Waxman is an “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat” who has a “serious lack of understanding of people in the auto industry and manufacturing generally.”

In a statement after the vote today, Dingell was more conciliatory: “This was clearly a change year and I congratulate my colleague Henry Waxman on his success today. I will work closely with him on the issues facing the Energy and Commerce Committee and for a smooth transition,” he said. “What will not change, however, and what will never change, is my commitment to the working men and women of the 15th Congressional District of Michigan who have honored me with the opportunity to represent them here in Washington. That commitment — to protecting and creating jobs, to providing health care for all Americans, to working to getting our state and nation’s economy back on track — is a fight I will continue to wage in Washington.”

At age 69 and after having served 33 years in the House himself, Waxman is certainly not a new face in Congress. But he’s seen as a leader of a younger and more liberal batch of Democratic representatives, and climate change is one area where he’s been out in front. As the second-ranking Democrat on Energy and Commerce, he has advocated for much tougher climate change policies than Dingell. His “Safe Climate Act” of 2006 called for emissions cuts of 80 percent below 1990 levels by mid-century. He also cosponsored a bill to ban new coal-fired power plants earlier this year, and joined with Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) to author a tough statement of principles for climate legislation that calls for strong near-term emissions targets, the auctioning of emissions permits, and major investment in clean-energy technology. So far, they’ve gathered 152 signatures from representatives supporting those principles – the majority of the Democratic caucus.

The representatives signing onto that statement included 11 members of the moderate “Blue Dog” coalition and 27 members of the Congressional Black Caucus — two groups whose members largely supported Dingell maintaining his post on E&C. But even these members, under the leadership of Waxman, might be spurred to more vigorous action on climate change.

Waxman has also been a tough critic of the Bush administration’s management of the EPA from his current role as chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He engaged in a fiery exchange with EPA administrator Stephen Johnson over the White House’s role in denying California a waiver for higher tailpipe emissions standards and weakening ozone standards. He also subpoenaed a number of documents on those matters, and threatened to hold Johnson and OMB head Susan Dudley in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn them over (the White House jumped in an exerted executive privilege to protect Johnson and Dudley from the subpoenas). Last month, he came out swinging on further attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act before the administration leaves office.

Green groups were happy with today’s vote, seeing Waxman as a better ally at the top of the committee. “With a lifetime LCV score of 91 percent, Chairman Waxman has been a longtime leader on energy and environmental issues and LCV congratulates him on his victory,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski in a statement shortly after the vote. “We look forward to working with the new chairman and with Chairman Dingell to promote the clean, renewable energy future that will repower, refuel, and rebuild America.”

As one might expect, industry groups are not as jazzed. Last week, Luke Popovich, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, told Bloomberg that Waxman would be “a very slow learner on the importance of coal for affordable energy” and said it would be “problematic in the best of times to have Mr. Waxman’s views prevail.”

Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy for the conservative think-tank Competitive Enterprise Institute issued a statement warning that Waxman’s approach to climate policy ” would send us back to the Stone Age.”

“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,” said Ebell. “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.”

One representative from the auto industry, however, said in an interview with Detroit News that because Detroit’s fate is being discussed so thoroughly Washington right now, the Big 3 automakers are not as worried about Waxman as they might have been.

“Waxman has had a very narrow focus on environmental issues,” said David Cole, the chair of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. “The concern was that he would rule without considering the realities of the auto industry. But I think now with the auto industry front and center in Washington, that is less of a concern.”

Of course, Waxman won’t be the sole arbiter of climate and energy policy next year, but signs in Washington are increasing pointing in the direction of tough and swift action on climate. Barack Obama’s statement to the Governors’ Climate Summit earlier this week on the subject, as well as comments from his chief of staff, seem to make it clear that this will be a top priority. And earlier this week, Obama tapped Phil Schiliro, a long-time Waxman aide, to be his assistant for legislative affairs, which might make coordination between the executive and Congress on this issue a whole lot smoother.