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National Review Online


Dingell's Unforgivable Sin

November 24, 2008

By Max Schulz

Congressional leadership fights often give the best sense of where the political zeitgeist is drifting. Think of the combative Newt Gingrich narrowly edging the establishment candidate Ed Madigan for House Republican whip in 1989. That contest, hardly noticed outside of conservative Republican circles at the time, would have dramatic implications, auguring the GOP's 1994 emergence from decades of political desert.

A similar seismic shift may have been signaled last week when Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) challenged fellow Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.) for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee is among the most powerful on Capitol Hill, and thus its chairman's influence is outsized. Dingell is a giant on Capitol Hill, irrespective of the power he has wielded as committee chairman. He has served in Congress since the Eisenhower administration, having inherited his long-serving father's seat. The Dingells have staked a spot in the House chamber since the last few months of Herbert Hoover's presidency.

Waxman is no spring chicken himself. Representing Hollywood and Beverly Hills, he came to Congress with the Watergate class of 1974. The excesses of that ultra-liberal class were long held in check by the old bulls of the House, and Dingell is among the last remaining. House Democrats voted to remove the Dingell obstacle last Thursday, giving Waxman a 137-122 victory in his bid to wrest the chairman's gavel from the second-longest-serving member in House of Representatives history.

News accounts portrayed it as a vote by the younger, more activist (and liberal) members of the Democratic caucus. They are said to want immediate action on climate change, as well as for Congress to mandate higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automakers. Dingell represents the Detroit area, and has been pilloried by colleagues for supposedly doing the automakers' bidding on Capitol Hill. As such, he is seen as someone blocking much needed energy and environmental reforms.

The reaction of Dingell's defeat among self-styled liberals has been fairly uniform. They are overjoyed at the demise of someone they view as corrupt and intransigent, a toady of the carmakers and a barrier to progress.

Take Jacob Heilbrunn's fairly typical entry in the Huffington Post. To him, the Waxman-Dingell slugfest was simply "good versus evil. A rotten oak has been felled. . . . . Dingell, as odious and bullying a legislator as there's ever been, was essentially nothing more than a shill for the auto industry, working overtime to suppress any attempts at controlling pollution or raising mileage limits."

The irony is that Dingell is a down-the-line liberal. He has long advocated national health insurance. He is as fervent a union man as organized labor has in Congress. His temperament actually differs little from Waxman's; both have used their Capitol Hill perches (Waxman chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee) to launch investigations, issue countless subpoenas, and hound political opponents. And on most energy and environmental issues, Dingell takes the reliably liberal line. ANWR? Absolutely not. Sock it to Big Oil? Certainly. Take steps to facilitate construction of new oil refineries? No sir.

Dingell's apostasy takes the form of the caution he urges on CAFE. He has encouraged a moderate stance when it comes to Congressional demands to dictate the fuel economy of automobile fleets. Unlike many of his colleagues, Dingell has understood that congressional CAFE mandates entail costs and trade-offs. It isn't enough for Washington merely to pass a law; those bound by its provisions must take steps to conform. That costs money, which means higher prices for consumers. Such a message throws cold water on those who suggest that a law from Congress is all that stands between us and full-service cars that get 75 miles per gallon.

That's not to say Dingell has opposed CAFE standards; he was among the authors of the law last year that hiked CAFE mandates 40 percent by 2020. It's just that, in the eyes of his Democratic colleagues, he was not willing to go far enough.

Dingell's more extreme heresy, however, comes in his approach to global warming. In recent years, most congressional Democrats have been on record favoring taking regulatory steps to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Emboldened by the awarding of a Nobel Prize to Al Gore and the election of Barack Obama, they are now firmly dedicated to the idea that immediate action must be taken by Washington to counter the dread effects of climate change. Waxman promises to act quickly, drafting regulations for a bureaucratic cap-and-trade proposal to limit GHG emissions.

Dingell also promised action on global warming, but the proposal he introduced last year to limit carbon emissions was unacceptable to the majority of his Democratic colleagues. That's because the plan he unveiled was a straight tax on carbon emissions, making very clear that efforts to limit carbon entail economic costs. A cap-and-trade system is every bit a tax as a straight levy, and will cost the economy. But its bureaucratic complexity obscures those inconvenient truths, making cap-and-trade a much more palatable option for politicians who have to answer to voters.

Dingell deserves kudos for saying that if we take extreme measures on global warming to address a supposedly urgent problem, we should do so with our eyes wide open about what they will cost. Instead of congratulations, his reward for such brutal candor was defenestration.

So what to make of Henry Waxman, the man who now takes over the House Energy and Commerce Committee and automatically assumes the role of one of the most powerful members of Congress? Here we have the liberal pit bull replacing the liberal old bull. As Red Hot Lies author Chris Horner archly noted on Planet Gore last week, House Democrats have just elected a man to chair the Committee on Energy and Commerce who opposes both those things. Perhaps. But it's worth asking: What Waxman does favor? A puff piece in Time two years ago gives some clues. "Asked to name a hobby, [Waxman] draws a blank," wrote Karen Tumulty. "What Waxman does love to do is write laws, and he has been extraordinarily good at it."

The headline on that story was "The Scariest Guy in Washington." And while Time's focus was on Bush administration officials who needed to worry about new-sheriff-in-town Waxman investigating their misdeeds, the headline's sobriquet served another purpose. An activist legislator with a singular passion for writing laws is indeed a scary concept. At a time when we are about to inaugurate a decidedly liberal president with a nearly veto-proof Senate majority, the idea of "the scariest guy in Washington" taking over the most important House committee other than Ways and Means should make us all afraid. Very afraid.

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