Why Waxman Won

Henry Waxman's victory over John Dingell yesterday in the fight for the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee isn't the first time that Waxman has ousted a more senior member. Back in 1978, when Waxman had been a member of Congress for just four years, he unseated the more senior Richardson Preyer, a Democrat from North Carolina, as chairman of the Health Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce. In those days, Waxman raised tons of money from his affluent Westside L.A. district, which he donated to House Democratic candidates from around the country. For the past decade, Waxman hasn't been the fundraiser and donor he once was, but it will be interesting to look at what donations he may have made in the past several months.

In a sense, the clash between Waxman and Dingell was the clash between the two ends of the auto industry in America. Dingell, from Dearborn, represented the historic and current home of auto production. Waxman, from Los Angeles, represented the epicenter of auto consumption and air pollution. Waxman's Westside constituency has always been among the most environmentally conscious in the nation. In the 1980s and early 1990s, while Waxman was waging his war against smoking in public places, the Los Angeles City Council member who persuaded the city to enact a smoking ban and the state legislator who persuaded the state to enact such a ban, came from Westside districts that essentially overlapped Waxman's.

Thursday's vote, like all Waxman victories, was the result of his strategic smarts and hard work, but he also benefited from Dingell's massive misfortune of timing. No member of Congress is more closely identified with the Big Three auto companies than Dingell, whose wife serves on the General Motors board of directors. Thursday's Democratic caucus meeting was scheduled long before the current crisis in the auto industry; nobody had envisioned that the nation's leading auto executives would disgrace themselves before congressional committees on the eve of the caucus vote. Their testimony was not only a disaster to their companies, it was one more nail in Dingell's coffin.

With his victory, Waxman now joins a small group of longtime California allies who are running key congressional institutions. Howard Berman, his political sidekick since they took over the California Young Democrats in 1965, chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee. Like George Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee and who is Nancy Pelosi's consigliere, and like Pelosi herself, Berman and Waxman are the political protégés of the late Phil Burton -- the militantly liberal San Francisco congressman of the 1960s and 1970s who was probably the single most effective liberal legislator the House has ever known. One of Burton's achievements was to persuade the House Democratic caucus to change its rules on committee chairmanships, so that seniority wasn't the sole criterion in determining a committee's chair. With the backing of the Democratic Watergate classes -- the new members elected in 1974 and 1976 -- Burton changed the process so that the caucus itself was sovereign, and could depose old Southern segregationists from their chairmanships. Thirty years later, Waxman has taken advantage of the Burton reforms so that the generation of California liberals whom Burton schooled in the ways of power are now the most powerful members of the House.

With Waxman as chairman, the Democrats now have a supremely able legislator in a position where he can move President Obama's agenda. Waxman, after all, is the congressman who was able to expand the number of people covered by Medicaid on 24 separate occasions during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, by winning just enough Republican support for each of his expansions. He's the congressman who fended off a decade-long effort by Reagan and Dingell to gut the Clean Air Act. On health care, fuel-efficiency standards, consumer protections, alternative energy, and global warming, he'll be Obama's enabler in the House and a force unto himself for progressive change and environmental stewardship.

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