By J. PATRICK PEPPER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Only a day after winning his 28th term in the U.S. House of Representatives and still wheelchair-bound from a recent knee surgery, John Dingell learned of a new challenge.
Dingell got a call Nov. 5 from U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) who informed him of his intent to seek to wrest chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee from Dingell — just hours after Democrats further entrenched their congressional majority with big wins in the election.
“We were all very surprised,” said Dingell spokeswoman Jodi Seth, who pointed out that sitting chairmen rarely are challenged.
In a written statement following the announcement, Waxman said he gave it “long thought” before challenging the dean of the House, but ultimately decided that he had “the skill and ability to build consensus and deliver legislation” on “comprehensive energy, climate and health care reform.”
Both men have been working to build coalitions to support their bids, and both say they have enough votes to win the position. The final say will rest with members of the Democratic caucus, and the wheels will start turning next week when committee chairs will be nominated in the 54-member Democratic Steering Committee.
Dingell is expected to get the nomination, as sitting chairmen traditionally do, meaning the challenge will be raised when the vote goes before the entire caucus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also of California and considered a Waxman ally, chairs the steering committee, but said she would remain neutral.
Dingell largely is considered one of the most effective legislators on Capitol Hill and has cited his record as reason why he should be retained. A 2008 power ranking by Congress.org placed Dingell as the fourth-most-powerful legislator in the House of Representatives, and many of his supporters have questioned the merit of Waxman’s challenge.
“When a member runs for a committee chairmanship, he should have a strong case for why the current chairman cannot or should not continue,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pennsylvania), a member of Dingell’s whip team.
“There is simply no basis for challenging Chairman Dingell,” Doyle said. “In fact, there is a clear need to keep the gavel in Dingell’s hands, and I’m pleased by the strong support that Dingell has received.”
From 1981 to 1995, when Republicans assumed control of the House, and again starting in 2006, the 82-year-old Dingell used the position to help craft major environmental legislation such as the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts. His record of environmentalism notwithstanding, he’s also been a close ally of the auto companies.
Among House peers, Dingell has been the single largest recipient of campaign money from the Big Three and is married to former General Motors lobbyist Debbie Dingell. He consistently has fought for lower fuel economy standards and used his influence to ease stringent emissions standards.
“He has an outstanding environmental record, but he also serves the interests of his constituents,” said Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly Jr., who formerly served on Dingell’s staff.
But the 69-year-old Waxman, who currently chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, long has advocated for stronger environmental regulations. His district —which includes the high-rent communities of Malibu, Hollywood and Beverly Hills — has been one of the biggest victims of air pollution, with noxious smog clouds that have been known to blot out the sun and often substandard air quality.
“The growing climate change crisis has to be addressed before it’s too late and just standing by the status quo isn’t going to work,” said Waxman after introducing stiff climate change legislation last year.
Waxman and Dingell have tangled over emissions standards since the Reagan administration, and some experts have speculated that Waxman is challenging Dingell because of President-elect Barack Obama’s stated desire to institute comprehensive climate change policy. Obama, though, has maintained that he will not pick sides in the conflict and has praised Dingell for his work on climate change in the past.
Perhaps the single largest disagreement between Waxman and Dingell is on who should have the authority to impose fuel efficiency standards. Dingell has echoed auto manufacturers and favored a nationwide fuel efficiency standard, while Waxman has advocated for a state’s right to choose.
California currently exercises the latter option, but endless litigation from the Big Three has made instituting the policies difficult.