WASHINGTON – In a move that marks a sea change in the nation’s environmental politics, California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman on Thursday dethroned a champion of the auto industry from a top job in the House of Representatives.
Rebuking their most senior member, House Democrats voted 137-122 to oust Michigan Rep. John Dingell, 82, as the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will oversee climate change issues in the new Congress.
It means two Californians will take leading roles in the debate. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is the head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.
Boxer, who wants to force industries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, called the vote “momentous” and predicted that Waxman, who has close ties to environmentalists and to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, “will be a great chairman.”
“For me, as a Californian … I could not, frankly, have a better partner,” said Boxer, calling the 69-year-old Waxman “a very, very, very strong” ally. With Barack Obama headed for the White House, she said, Washington will have all of the players in place to move aggressively to reduce global warming: “It’s going to be a great year.”
Dingell’s backers were fuming that Democrats would throw out a veteran committee chairman simply because they disagreed with his political philosophy, calling it a blow to their long-established seniority system. Dingell, however, the top Democrat on the committee for nearly 28 years, congratulated Waxman and promised to work with him “for a smooth transition.”
“Well, this was clearly a change year,” said Dingell, who was first elected in 1954.
Dingell, who’s resisted higher fuel standards and tighter limits on greenhouse gases, had called Waxman an “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat” and said it would be a mistake to have him in charge of the committee, particularly with the auto industry struggling.
Democrats said the showdown between Waxman and Dingell – which took place behind closed doors – was one of the most intense they’d witnessed.
“It was sort of like Zeus and Thor, these two powerful people throwing lightning around the room,” said California Democratic Rep. George Miller, who’d backed Waxman and urged his colleagues to do so. “You’re asking people how they’re going to vote and most people say, ‘I just want to get out of the way. I don’t want to get hit by this stuff.’ It took awhile to settle down.”
Miller said one of the main reasons Dingell lost was that he and President Bush led the effort “to get rid of California’s clean-air standards.”
North Carolina Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, who voted for Dingell, said House Democrats were opening the door to appointing other top positions based on issues such as friendship, political donations and ideology. He said that could lead to “substantial problems going forward” for the majority party.
“I just thought it was a mistake, without having concrete and compelling reasons, to start disregarding the seniority system,” Watt said. “We need a more concrete standard than popularity. … The best person is in the eye of the beholder, and the most senior person is not.”
David Schultz, who teaches political science and election law at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., said Dingell’s departure and Obama’s election made the current leadership in Washington the most pro-environment since the early 1970s. That’s when Congress teamed up with President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency, pass the Clean Water Act and create air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards. “We’re looking at a new Congress that, in spite of where the economy is, the environment is going to be front and center,” he said.