While the Obama transition team starts assembling the pieces of his administration, one of D.C.’s most intriguing subplots is unfolding: the contest between Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) for chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees clean air, global warming, and other critical environmental legislation.
Last week the Washington Post reported that Dingell is rallying friendly K Street lobbyists in an effort to fend off Waxman and hold on to his chairmanship. And so the corporate propaganda now ham-fistedly attempts to portray Waxman as less effective at building consensus on effective legislation.
I’ve had a ringside seat for more than three decades — as a reporter and later an environmental analyst — watching these two lawmakers in action. It seems like only yesterday (in fact it was 1982) that I penned “Tailpipe Johnny” for The New Republic, an account of how Dingell joined forces with the anti-environmental Ronald Reagan administration in an effort to weaken the Clean Air Act on behalf of car companies and other special interests. Fortunately for the breathing public, Waxman and a large majority of the House Democrats beat back that assault.
Throughout the ensuing decades, it’s been Waxman who sought clean air and other environmental solutions. The result has been a strong law that has brought us cleaner air while strengthening the economy. If Waxman had not prevailed on so many issues over Dingell, pollution in this country would undoubtedly be worse today.
Even after the Democrats regained a majority in the current Congress, we soon were reminded of the saying about old dogs and new tricks. Soon after the Supreme Court ruled (in the case Massachusetts v. EPA) that the EPA had authority to control global warming emissions from cars, Dingell circulated a draft plan to overturn the court decision.
Hearkening back to his antics of the early ’80s, Dingell’s proposal risked fracturing the new Democratic majority, which hoped to reverse the anti-environmental policies of the previous Congress.
Dingell was effective at one thing — his actions prompted immediate opposition from governors from California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Attorneys general from Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont protested as well. These states would later supply nearly 60 percent of the electoral votes to elect Barack Obama. Needless to say, environmental groups ranging from the League of Conservation Voters to Defenders of Wildlife also opposed Dingell’s draft.
Fortunately, Waxman stood up in opposition to Dingell’s plan, and the Michigan Democrat backed down — for a little while. On October 7, 2008, Dingell released new draft climate legislation which confirmed that he remains both consistent and persistent. This draft also would repeal the Supreme Court case, however that action is presented as an “option” that the committee chairman can choose later in the legislative process. No wonder Duke Energy and other big polluters immediately hailed the Dingell plan.
While Dingell has remained focused on his parochial issues, Waxman has carefully developed principles for climate legislation that are supported by a majority of the House Democratic caucus.
As he did with clean air in the 1980s, Dingell has bucked the Democratic caucus on other environmental issues as well. For instance, in August now-Senator-elect Tom Udall offered an amendment to increase the share of electricity from renewable energy. While 85 percent of Democrats voted for the amendment at the urging of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Dingell voted against it.
Renewable energy, of course, is widely supported throughout the nation. Twenty-six states plus Washington, D.C. have adopted renewable electricity standards. (The map of these states looks a lot like Obama’s electoral map.) In fact, they gave Obama 272 electoral votes, or 75 percent of his total. Renewable electricity, of course, is a key element of Obama’s energy plan. A new Zogby poll shows that more than 3 in 4 voters — 78 percent — believe investing in clean energy is important to revitalizing America’s economy.
Ultimately, the battle for this key chairmanship will be decided by the Democratic members of the House of Representatives. Waxman has been one of the most consistently effective members of Congress on the issues I monitor. You just have to hope that polluter lobbyists don’t cloud the issue with a toxic smog of misinformation.