The Waxman Challenge to Dingell

Two of my favorite Congressmen–my own representative, John Dingell, and the current Chair of the Oversight Committee, Henry Waxman–are in a fight over the Chair of the powerful Commerce Committee, which John Dingell currently chairs. Here are some thoughts:

Two Good Chairmen

Understand, this is ideological and political, not functional.  That is, this is a fight between two of the most effective Chairmen in the House.

Several Washington sources said they were puzzled by Waxman’s challenge because the committee had run smoothly in recent years, steadily producing complex bills. Committee chairmanships usually go to the member who has served the longest, although junior members have pulled upsets in cases where a chairman was clearly ineffective.

Dingell has been recovering from knee replacement surgery last month after spending much of the past year on crutches, sometimes moving slowly and in visible pain around the Capitol. But Dingell, first elected in 1955, has shown few other signs of age.

"He’s sharper than most members on his bad days," Stupak said.

Yeah, Stupak is an incredibly close Dingell ally, but as someone who speaks with Dingell regularly, I can attest that he’s very sharp. There are committees out there–some pretty important ones–that would benefit mightily from having more competent Democratic leadership, but Commerce is not one of them.

So frankly, I’m more concerned about the absence of a strong leader on Oversight than I am whether Commerce will have an effective leader. Darrell Issa is set to take over Oversight for the Republicans and he can be a consummate pain in the ass; we need to have someone to counter Issa. And frankly, I want real oversight of the Obama administration, particularly of the proceedings of the Treasury bailout. If Waxman were to leave, the next most senior leader of any note (IMO) is Elijah Cummings or Dennis Kucinich. While Kucinich might actually be good at keeping the obnoxious Issa in line and the bailout money doing what it’s supposed to, I doubt that leadership wants to give him a gavel.

Energy Issues and Climate Change

Waxman’s challenge is, above all, an attempt to force more progressive legislation through Commerce on climate change and energy issues. As the chief ally of the American auto industry in Congress, Dingell has long fought any legislation that would make life more difficult on the auto industry, notably increased CAFE standards and air quality regulations.

But on this issue–even as a Michigander–I side with Waxman. Climate change and energy security are just too important to be subjugated to the short-sightedness of the incredibly short-sighted auto industry. Besides, faced with proactive climate regulation, auto companies are going to have to get more limber, which they’re going to have to do anyway, if they want to survive. (Besides, they just got $25 billion to ease this transition, so they’ve got some help doing so, thought it won’t be enough.)

Health Care

Remarkably, in all the coverage of Waxman’s challenge thus far, Waxman has said little about health care.  Health care is almost as big a priority for an Obama administration as energy is, and in that area Dingell has the experience and the unremitting focus. Dingell has introduced legislation supporting universal healthcare for twenty-six Congresses in a row, and this time around, with both Dingell and Kennedy fighting to implement their lifetime’s legislative priority, it will become a reality. And Dingell has been a close ally with Kennedy on Medicare and other healthcare related issues.

To remove Dingell from his oversight of these healthcare issues at this point in time is both unwise strategically and downright churlish, it seems to me.

A Non-Financial Economy

The healthcare issue moves the discussion to where I believe this issue should be decided–and thus far it’s an area where Waxman has been totally silent.

Healthcare is a necessity, now above all others, because without it we cannot be competitive internationally. If we don’t get Americans healthcare, we will continue to face a disadvantage when competing against companies operating in countries that have healthcare.

But I’m just as interested in all the subjects within Commerce’s jurisdiction that should play a central role in responding to the economic crisis: telecommunications infrastructure (which also impacts much of the media), food and consumer product inspection, biomedical regulation, travel, and FTC, among others. It is a committee that really ought to be at the center of an effort to rebuild our non-financial economy now that the risk of becoming so reliant on finance has been revealed. It should have a part in revitalizing manufacturing, healthcare, and some aspects of agriculture. It’s an area Nancy Pelosi has largely left out of her response to the financial meltdown–which is almost as short-sighted as all those auto executives trying to put off a response to climate change (and note how centrally Pelosi put Oversight into her response to the economic meltdown, which was presumably not an accident).

We heard a lot about Main Street during this election–and much of the economic impacts to Main Street go right through this committee. I’d like the discussion about this fight to include a close focus on what it will do for Main Street.

Nancy’s Own Leadership

Nancy Pelosi is playing dumb about this challenge, pretending she had nothing to do with a close ally taking on one of her biggest antagonists.

And while her aides denied it, many saw Pelosi’s hand in the stunning challenge to Dingell, the so-called Dean of the House who will become the longest serving member of the lower chamber in February.

Waxman is a key ally of Pelosi’s, while Dingell has long been an obstacle to her. After redistricting, Pelosi backed then- Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) over Dingell in 2002, but Dingell won.

Pelosi aides said she had no prior knowledge of the Waxman coup attempt.

“The idea that Waxman just popped out there with this, without discussing with Nancy Pelosi, is ridiculous,” said a former Democratic aide.

I suppose I understand why Pelosi would pretend she has nothing to do with this. But consider how this challenge might raise questions about her own leadership.

I said above that Waxman and Dingell were two of the most effective Chairmen in the House. The same could not be said, thus far, for Pelosi’s tenure as Speaker. She has failed to make headway on the key issue of the 2006 election, the war, and she has repeatedly gotten rolled by the more conservative members of her caucus.

To some degree, I see this challenge as an attempt by Pelosi loyalists to solidify her own position, to put more progressives in positions of leadership. But I wonder whether it’s not going to exacerbate some of the difficulties she has had keeping her more conservative lieutenants in line. I understand why she’s presumably supporting this challenge, and believe the energy and climate related issues are really important, but I do wonder whether she has overplayed her hand. 

Maybe this is why Rahm took so long to decide whether he wants to be White House Chief of Staff (he just accepted)–because Waxman’s challenge may stir things up in the House more than he expected would happen.

34 replies
  1. klynn says:

    You do so well at asking the right questions , at the right time and piecing the evidence together for said questions.

    Thank you, EW.

  2. Mauimom says:

    Thank you, Marcy, for this.

    As a non-Michiganger, and spouse of someone who used to work on Energy & COmmerce, I’ve always had intense negative feelings towards Dingell. I think he could have used his “bully pulpit” to guide the auto industry to building better cars, rather than encouraging their bad behavior and resistance to CAFE standards.

    Is Dingell linking health care costs to survival of the auto industry — i.e., that a hunk of the price of each US-produced car goes to cover health care? If health care were provided nationally, the cost-per-car would drop drastically. If he could make — and sell — this link, I would salute him.

    I really love Henry Waxman, because he helped us get through legislation in the 1980s to compensate families whose children had been injured through defective vaccines, but I am glad to have your wider view.

    • emptywheel says:

      He has not linked them as much as he should have. In 2006, I thought of suggesting to Dingell that he propose a swap of dramatically increased CAFE standards for some help on pensions and healthcare–which we’re going to end up payign anyway. I should have done it, bc it would have given us a big leg up on things.

  3. PJEvans says:

    I’m torn on this one. We need both of them. I really don’t want to lose Waxman from Oversight, because I don’t think anyone else can run it as well, but we do need someone running Commerce who can see past Detroit’s automakers.

  4. bmaz says:

    Yeah, I kind of vacillate too; on the whole, I guess I lean to leaving them both where they are. I dunno environmental is key, but so is healthcare. I wonder if the challenge alone might bend Dingell into a better position (Hey Harman got schooled up once; maybe Dingell can). Just dunno. Sure would like a better Leadersheep than Pelosi….

  5. rincewind says:

    I haven’t forgiven Dingell for his 90’s-era EPA witch-hunting — driven, as far as I can tell, by trying to get pork-n-power for Grosse Isle at the expense of the rest of the country. Everything else since then (CAFE, climate-change-denialism, fake-out on a carbon-tax, siding w/Bushco against California, etc etc etc) just strengthens my grudge.

  6. Palli says:

    Dammit, can’t they all just get along!? But first, my ire went up at the reality of EW’s comment about Kucinich:
    “While Kucinich might actually be good at keeping the obnoxious Issa in line and the bailout money doing what it’s supposed to, I doubt that leadership wants to give him a gavel…To some degree, I see this challenge as an attempt by Pelosi loyalists to solidify her own position, to put more progressives in positions of leadership.”

    Me to Pelosi: “Progressives without considering Kucinich?” Prejudice against people who aren’t like you (or is it just people you don’t like) is alive and well in democratic leadership. A big tent but the ringmaster doesn’t understand there are 3 rings and they can all turn the same way. When a group doesn’t use all of their resources to the fullest extent the results are dimminished.

    Waxman is on top of Oversight; I wish he could feel for ways that Oversight could do more of what he wants America to do. How will we manage without his unigue, untiring oversight and direction? Has he heard that Oversight will bear little fruit from the investigative efforts made in the last 2 years?

    You know Dingell better than I. But if Dingell is on top of the Healthcare issue, how can he be so compliant to the auto industry,even if it is the largest employer in MI? I, an Ohio citizen, trust Kucinich on our nations’s issues, especially healthcare. If Pelosi believes he is an outsider… the leadership made him one.

    I don’t want anyone’s feelings hurt or power struggles ignited- I want things done. I’ve supported them all too long…

  7. freepatriot says:

    as a citizen of Cali, I gotta support Waxman

    woo hoo waxman, you give it to those michiganders (and the michigeese too)

    now that that’s outta the way, wouldn’t it be better for us to HAVE a progressive PITT BULL on the commerce committee ???

    how many more fookin stern letters can conyers write

  8. WilliamOckham says:

    Don’t underestimate Henry Waxman when it comes to health care. He used to be the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Health Care. In fact, until he took over the Oversight Committee, health care was his primary issue. In fact, I would argue that he was the House Dem’s leading spokesman on health care policies from the mid-80’s to mid-90’s.

    I think the real question is who does Obama want to work with on these issues?

    • emptywheel says:

      I’m not necessarily underestimating him (though I am saying that making the switch pre-health care would be pretty churlish, given Dingell’s much longer history on healthcare). I’m saying he’s barely mentioning it.

      We’re in a huge financial crisis right now. I’m not hearing either side talk about all the things Commerce should be doing to shore up our non-financial economy. That’s a problem.

      • WilliamOckham says:

        I don’t entirely buy the notion that this was Pelosi’s idea. Waxman probably made this play on his own, knowing that Pelosi would have to support him (and yes that says something about Pelosi, she’s had trouble keeping the peace between her barons in the feudal House leadership system).

        Dingell’s commitment to health care is laudable (universal health care bill every year since, oh, six years before Barack Obama was born), but it has been more symbolic than effective. Waxman has a very high GSD (gets, uh, stuff, done) factor. This is an unfortunate battle, but either outcome is acceptable. The loser needs to remember that there are more important issues than their own ego.

    • bmaz says:

      I think the real question is who does Obama want to work with on these issues?

      I wonder if that is not at least partially behind the current attempted movement?

      • WilliamOckham says:

        Possibly, but Waxman is a very self-motivated guy and the House Dems don’t exactly have a history of working with an incoming Dem administration.

  9. Minnesotachuck says:

    As the chief ally of the American auto industry in Congress, Dingell has long fought any legislation that would make life more difficult on the auto industry, notably increased CAFE standards and air quality regulations. . . . Climate change and energy security are just too important to be subjugated to the short-sightedness of the incredibly short-sighted auto industry.

    Marcy, maybe can help get it through to Dingell that a good measure of the reason the US auto industry is in such deep shit these days is that the political coddling of the industry has enabled it’s self-blinding to the changing shape of the auto marketplace.

  10. JohnLopresti says:

    There is a lot of intelligence in the exchanges which will settle the new committee assignments, as the thread has suggested. As research I thought a review of a lower chamber banking committee member who has considerable seniority would be a worthwhile reference, then I happened upon an inverse encomium delivered by a congressperson, evidently asked for an ‘apologia pro vita sua’ whose description of his own promotions seemed to emphasize how much of the shifting reveals purposelessness, in his own perceptions of how he arrived in congress and received promotions; maybe his tale in The Humanist’s current issue is appropriate comic relief for the strain of the transitions in the House. As for the economics issues, the financial spinouts of the past six weeks evoked images of the only partly revealed crisis in the San Diego pension system, a topic of considerable local interest but one with replications in other cities who invested in the controversial derivative instruments which contributed to the Wall St crunch ongoing. I see Detroit applying for award of part of the $700. BBN bailout to underwrite new cafe standards for compact trucks and vans, Dingell’s committee’s historic area of interest.

  11. bobschacht says:

    Thanks for your insights, EW!

    I guess I’d rather Waxman stay at Oversight. That committee gives Waxman a lot of room to roam. But then, I’m still thinking Bush rather than Obama.

    I think what I’d do is to leave them both where they are, for one more Congress, with dual assignments, Janus-like:
    (1) Clean up the myriad messes made by the Bush-Cheney crime syndicate, and
    (2) Move us forward to deal with the challenges of the 21st Century.

    But can we please get rid of Pelosi, whom I consider something akin to a traitor for taking impeachment off the table, and making kissy-poo with Bush when she should have been whacking his a**? Can’t we get someone who cares about the Constitution in the Speaker’s chair?

    Bob in HI

  12. sojourner says:

    Even Democrats develop tunnel vision. Dingell has been around a very long time — I was a young man when I first met him His protection of the auto industry is good — to a degree. He has been very anti-oil in the past — but again, only to a degree. Where I am going is that it is time for a LOT of people to begin thinking outside the box. Maybe the auto industry needs to adapt… Maybe we need to develop more oil and gas while we also develop some alternative energies.

    Regardless of what happens, I hope Pelosi does not decide to start playing her own power games and distracting from what needs to happen…

  13. sojourner says:

    “He has been very anti-oil in the past — but again, only to a degree.”

    Oops! That should be “He has been very anti-oil in the past, and that has helped — but again, only to a degree.”

  14. BoxTurtle says:

    I don’t entirely buy the notion that this was Pelosi’s idea.

    I don’t, either. But there’s no doubt that Waxman would have run it past Nancy before going public. And she must have approved it.

    Frankly, I like Waxman. But I DON’T like what appears to an attempt to cement Nancy’s powerbase at the expense of Dingall. But it islikely Obama is planning to go after CAFE, probably as part of the unavoidable bailout deal for the automakers and maybe he just wants Dingall out of the way.

    I think he’d be better off trying to work with Dingall than to sideline him.

    Boxturtle (Chicago politics beginning?)

    • emptywheel says:

      I was told by a Michigan politico this year that CAFE is moot–on account of gas prices. I think that’s still true.

      Though to be honest, efficient cars aren’t selling either. At this point, I suspect a lot of people are going to put off car ownership for an extra two years, even ignoring how many people are upside down on loans. So the question is, do we really want a domestically owned auto industry? And if so, what do we propose doing to get them through the next year and a half, which will be brutal, and preparing them to be competitive on the other side.

      I’m going to do a post on this in the near future. But the options are stark.

      • pdaly says:

        I originally thought the price of gasoline and oil came down to boost Republican hopes for this 2008 election.

        That the prices remain low makes me wonder if the oil industry is also trying a tactic to keep alternative fuel research (under Obama’s administration) too costly by comparison.

        BTW, I am still waiting for the auto industry to manufacture flying cars.
        And I brainstormed tonight: a flying car that gets its fuel from sucking in carbon emissions already in the air–like the way a whale shark feeds.

        If and when the cars start sputtering in space, well then we’ll know we’re back to a clean environment.

        (Again, no joy sticks for steering wheels, please. I know bmaz agrees with me).

        • bmaz says:

          Boy howdy, I was even wigged out by planes with joysticks as opposed to some kind of wheel (even though it does the same thing).

        • Sara says:

          “That the prices remain low makes me wonder if the oil industry is also trying a tactic to keep alternative fuel research (under Obama’s administration) too costly by comparison.”

          Many Ethanol plants in Iowa and Minnesota are on the verge of bankruptcy — they bought expensive corn futures early last summer, and are now upside down with the corn market, as commodity prices have tumbled. Several large new plants are not being started up as planned this fall and the decrease in gasoline consumption has cut the market demand for Ethanol for blending.

          Most of these newer plants have been planned so as to easily switch from corn feedstock to other cellulosic materials at little cost for refitting, so they are not a total loss. My hope is that the Obama management team understand the need to set fairly wide ranging policy and not just narrowly focus on particular subsidy programs, which are not adequate for planning and executing a major shift to different energy sources, and the different kinds of machines that use them.

  15. BoxTurtle says:

    I was told by a Michigan politico this year that CAFE is moot–on account of gas prices. I think that’s still true.

    Hmm…Obama is going to have to do some things to show he’s serious about reducing energy use. CAFE is something everybody understands and most agree with, so I thought he’d start there.

    Raising taxes on gas is likely, but that will be more for highway infrastructure then energy conservation. He could ban the old type light bulbs. Both of which will at best slow the rate of growth. Alternate energy right now is nuclear, though some recent advances in solar give me hope.

    Boxturtle (Awaiting your promised post)

  16. freepatriot says:

    off topic knee slapper of the day

    turns out Scheunemann WASN’T fired:

    However, Goldfarb did concede that Scheunemann’s campaign e-mail was cut off, and his blackberry was taken away late Friday. Goldfarb admits that senior McCain aides were mad at Scheunemann, and wanted to fire him, but he insists they stopped short of that, and instead simply turned off his campaign communication.

    so mister goldfarb, what you’re saying is that mcstain just didn’t have enough sand to fire the backstabbing little shit

    three days later, and these clueless fuckers still haven’t learned to DIGG UP, STUPID

    no link, but that’s stolen from tpm’s front page

  17. freepatriot says:

    off-topic but kinda related:

    Jack Cafferty wants to know if the Government should bail out the big three auto makers

    I say fuck em

    we got 10 million suvs on the highway cuz of those bastards

    they can claim they were just selling what people wanted to buy

    my response

    look where that got you

    I believe in the free market

    let them fail

    If I can build a better car, I should be able to buy a GM plant for $32.64 at an auction, if those stupid fuckers at GM can’t operate a successful business (I might be able to go as high as $68.72, let me check with my bank). It’s called “capitalism”

    an if warren buffet is readin this, yes, I’ll take your calls

    okay michiganders (and the michigeese) LIGHT ME UP

  18. spoonful says:

    There is virtually no person in all of Washington who showed more of a backbone against the Bush bozos than Henry. While he may not be perfect, the future of our energy policy needs a brand new face with a lot more leadership by someone who can be trusted. Dingell’s relationship to the auto industry makes him someone not to be trusted (Hillary was certainly sharp – I just don’t trust her since she became senator). Energy is the next phase of the industrial revolution. Hey, for the price of 4 weeks fun and games by the U.S. army in Iraq – at least $13bb – we could build a super-collider to try to develop nuclear fission. How long has that project taken to get off the ground? Good luck Henry.

  19. ltgra says:

    I hope one day soon that america will decide to ban all non comercial cars weighing more than 500 lbs and getting 100 miles to the gallon.

    This may sound like pie in the sky but this is totally do-able.

    A man in Bellingham has achieved the 100 mi per gallon from bellingham to Portland Or. but this was diesel. About 200 miles.

    A five year transition and a new economy would be born. General motors,Ford, chrysler and John Dingle would hate that.

    I do most of my commuting by bicycle now but being on the road with those tanks and suvs is pretty daunting. I am retired and my job is to excersize and play bridge. We have a 17 mi paved abandoned railroad bed here in Snohomish, WA.

    When I ride I can listen to air america or books on tape. I hope someday I will be able to listen to emptywheel somehow.

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