Power politics: Waxman v. Dingell in commerce committee

By Kennedy Maize

Nothing fails like success. Already, Democrats in Congress are at each others’ throats about sharing the spoils from the Obama victory.

The most serious fight so far pits Hollywood liberal Henry Waxman against the long-time chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Democrat John Dingell of Michigan. Waxman has launched a high-profile attempt to oust the 82-year-old Dingell, who himself won the chairmanship in 1981 by overthrowing long-time Democratic chairman Harley Staggers of West Virginia.

This could be an epic battle, and emblematic of what happens when a party wins a large victory and exposes the schisms in its members. Waxman and Dingell have long been adversaries as they have served together on the House energy committee, going back at least 25 years to the battle over the reauthorization of the 1977 Clean Air Act. They famously brawled over most air act provisions, with Waxman pushing an environmental agenda and Dingell holding out for more modest, industry-backed approaches.

They fought to a standstill, and the issue didn’t get resolved until the 1990 (Bush I) push finally put a new version of the air act on the books.

Since then, Waxman (widely known as the “Wascally Wabbit of Westwood”) has been pushing Dingell on climate legislation. Waxman, representing a Hollywood district, is part of the more liberal, California contingent of Democrats, and an ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Dingell’s roots are in the Rust Belt, where he has been a stalwart of the domestic auto industry. One source calls Dingell “the Jack Kavorkian of Detroit,” arguing that he has assisted in the auto industry’s suicide of bad car designs and poor management practices.

But Dingell, whose physical skills are showing his age, is one of the savviest legislators in history. He has consistently defended his committee’s enormous jurisdiction and fended off attempts to cut into his power.

On the other hand, Waxman has a history of usurping power. In 1979, at the beginning of his third term in Congress, Waxman mounted a successful campaign to take over the Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee from the widely-revered Democrat Richardson Preyer of North Carolina. Waxman made the case that the Democrats should reverse their bias for seniority, and prevailed. It was an early red flag that this Californian was a political force, which proved to be the case in the years ahead.

Insiders handicap the race in Waxman’s favor. Dingell is somewhat physically infirm, although his political skills are sharp. But Waxman has the implicit support of Pelosi, who has a long career of bumping into Dingell, the most senior Democrat in the House.

Dingell’s father was elected to represent his Michigan district in 1932. The elder Dingell died in 1955, and is said — perhaps this is an urban legend — to have told his son on his death bed, “Johnny, don’t let them take our guns away.”

Nevertheless, Johnny won the seat to succeed his father and his been in the House ever since. An avid hunter and fisherman, Dingell is perhaps the leading congressional opponent of gun control legislation, although a conventional liberal on many other issues, and a dedicated environmentalist on land use and wilderness topics.

Big John will pull out all of his political guns to defeat Waxman, a worthy opponent. Check Las Vegas for the odds on this contest.