John DingellWhether House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell is a potential friend or an implacable foe is not only the subject of intense debate here at Gristmill, but a key strategic question for the environmental movement and the Democratic Party. I recently wrote an article for The American Prospect about how Dingell’s fellow congressional Democrats are abandoning him as he tries to obstruct meaningful energy and climate legislation — and implied that his diminished power means Democrats and environmentalists can go around him without worrying about fallout from not having him at the table.

I want to use this opportunity to provide a little more information about how I reached that conclusion, in a way not possible within the length constraints of the original American Prospect article.

First, I was struck, and a little surprised, by the almost unanimous unwillingness of Democrats to say anything meaningful in support of Dingell. While all stopped short of explicit on-the-record attacks, they generally responded to my questions about their support for Dingell with harsh criticisms of his policies, largely untempered by the personal praise members usually bestow on even their roughest opponents.

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What also struck me was how different their response to Dingell was from their response to other opponents of climate change legislation. Henry Waxman, an environmental champion who has tangled with Dingell over the years on many issues, wouldn’t comment on him. But when I asked him about concessions House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made on public lands provisions of the energy bill to oil-patch Democrats, Waxman said he supported Pelosi fully.

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“It’s better that we should get them on board,” he told me.

Second, as I noted in the article, in the Democratic caucus there’s a consensus that significantly increased fuel efficiency standards will be part of the final bill — with or without Dingell’s support. As I noted in the article, even consummate vote-counter Steny Hoyer openly predicted that outcome during a news conference. That’s a major departure from the days when moving forward on major environmental legislation without Dingell’s backing was at best unrealistic and at worst inconceivable.

Furthermore, I saw Dingell’s weakened pull when the 15 percent Renewable Energy Standard passed even though he opposed it — and even though two trusted sources told me he had actively lobbied against it. (Dingell spokesperson Jodi Seth flatly denied this report, saying that Dingell only opposed the RES because it hadn’t gone through his committee and because members “were not given an opportunity to weigh in on it” — which I don’t know is any better.)

That kind of dissembling is why I don’t buy Dingell’s argument that he’s actually going to work for aggressive legislation to address the carbon crisis. When pressured, he pays lip service to environmental goals, but when it comes to acts that matter, he’s consistently obstructive. Let’s review:

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  1. He started the year saying he wasn’t sure global warming is real.
  2. He fought off Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to give jurisdiction over climate legislation to a new select committee controlled by environmental champion Ed Markey, saying that committee would be as useful as “feathers on a fish.”
  3. He told C-SPAN he was floating a carbon tax as a way to generate opposition to meaningful action to stop global warming: “I sincerely doubt that the American people will be willing to pay what this is really going to cost them … When you see the criticism I get, I think you’ll see the answer to your question.”
  4. He floated an energy proposal that was, in many ways, worse than Bush’s energy bill; it included major liquid-coal subsidies, took a gratuitous swipe at California’s 30-year-old authority to set its own environmental standards, and included weaker increases in fuel efficiency standards than Bush himself had proposed.
  5. Greenpeace called for his removal as chairman; labeled him the “Dingellsaurus” in radio ads; and Dingell’s UAW supporters launched a counterprotest. Pelosi dismissed the idea of weakening California’s air pollution standards.
  6. In the face of the harsh criticism, he backed off the proposal. He referred to his opponents as “damned environmentalists.”
  7. He has now gone on record in The Washington Post saying he’s for a real carbon tax, rather than implementing only a cap-and-trade system, because “we have to be more ambitious.”
  8. Steny Hoyer predicted Congress will pass energy legislation with meaningful CAFE standards.
  9. Dingell voted against a modest Renewable Energy Standard, but was on the losing side of the vote.

I agree that Dingell has moved significantly in his rhetoric, to the point that he now gives lip service to serious action on global warming. But rhetoric has never been his preferred battleground; he’s much more of a back-room combatant. It’s important to keep an eye on what he’s actually doing where it matters — and whether he’s gaining any traction. So far, he’s fought hard against all steps forward, but it hasn’t made much difference in policy.

That suggests that environmentalists and Democrats would be well served to reconsider conventional wisdom about Dingell. Partly because of his gratuitous and repeated swipes at leadership and the environmental movement, his sway with both leadership and rank-and-file Democrats is considerably less than it once was. As the RES vote and Hoyer’s prediction that Congress will pass aggressive fuel efficiency standards shows, his support is no longer essential to passing major environmental legislation. This doesn’t mean that Democrats or environmentalists can ignore all sometime-opponents of environmental progress within the caucus (some, like Gene Green and Charlie Gonzalez, have shown that they retain considerable pull), but it does mean we can stop obsessing about Dingell.