Dingell's demise

Big news: following a secret ballot, House Democrats have ousted Michigan’s John Dingell, the veteran chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a consistent thorn in the side of environmentalists, in favor of California liberal Henry Waxman. That’s a triumph for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who quietly stage-managed the vote - and a sign that President-Elect Barack Obama can look forward to the House Democratic caucus’s support as he launches his clean-energy revolution.

Dingell isn’t all bad: among other things, he wrote the original Endangered Species Act. But in the 28 years that Dingell has been chair or ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, he’s routinely aligned himself with auto lobbyists rather than the environmental crowd, opposing fuel-economy increases and fighting against efforts to impose stricter emissions rules. He’s also backed Big Coal, aiding and abetting Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, the coal-country congressman who chairs the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee. And on climate change, Dingell has proved such a stick-in-the-mud that last year Democratic leaders were forced to create a special global-warming panel in an attempt to circumvent his obstructionism.

Waxman, by contrast, has been a firm friend to the environmental movement over the years, as chair of the Health and Environment Subcommittee and later as the chair of the Oversight Committee. During the 1980s, Waxman successfully blocked the Reagan administration’s efforts to reduce fuel-economy standards; more recently, he managed to substantially strengthen the Clean Air Act, and played a key role in the battle against second-hand cigarette smoke.

And Waxman is strong on climate change, too. Where Dingell has called for carbon emissions to be reduced to 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050, Waxman wants reductions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by mid-century. He also, unlike Dingell, says polluters should have to pay for all the carbon they produce, and shouldn’t be given free carbon-credits as part of a cap-and-trade system.

That puts Waxman squarely on the same page as Barack Obama, and bodes well for relations between the new Congress and Obama’s White House. Obama has already appointed former Waxman aide Philip Schiliro to be his top congressional liaison; with Pelosi and Waxman both singing from Obama’s hymnbook, prospects for real energy and environmental reform in the new Congress look brighter than ever.

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