Dingell Versus the Democrats

"Hey, sweetheart," drawled Republican Leader John Boehner to Steny Hoyer, his Democratic counterpart, as Hoyer emerged from the weekly Democratic Caucus lunch with a bigger-than-usual grin on his face.

Boehner had good reason for his sarcasm, and Hoyer had good reason for his glee: after a summer of Republican victories on issues like Iraq and trade policy, House Democrats are finally sticking it to the GOP.

The Dems are racing through the "Six for '06" platform they ran on in the last election. Last week, President Bush helped them knock off one more agenda item by signing a law implementing many of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, a core Democratic election promise. And last Tuesday, the House fulfilled another Democratic pledge by overwhelmingly approving a tough new lobbying and campaign finance law that will limit lobbyist gifts and force "bundlers" -- individual fundraisers who compile large checks from friends and associates then slip them to campaigns to avoid individual spending limits -- to reveal their heretofore unknown identities.

They (and ongoing scandals) have also put the Bush White House and Republicans on the defensive on health care, forcing the GOP into the position of arguing that children should continue to go without health insurance because they can, in President Bush's memorable words, "just go to an emergency room."

These successful Democratic offensives are a big relief for progressives, who have spent most of the summer aiming their fire squarely at the Democratic leadership for surrendering to Bush and the Republicans on the Iraq war, trade deals, and other issues. With House Democrats now (mostly) fighting for progressive priorities rather than working with Bush and Republicans to undermine them, progressive activists could now resume their preferred anti-Republican posture instead of aiming their fire at their own.

But this restored unity appeared to be in jeopardy as Democrats turned their attention to what has probably been the single most divisive issue within their caucus: energy policy. Despite some very public gnashing of teeth over Iraq and trade, the energy bill, which passed the House on Saturday, is the only piece of legislation that has produced barely veiled public challenges to Pelosi's leadership from within her own caucus.

That's not so much because energy is a more divisive issue for Democrats, but rather because no other legislation has seen as much involvement from Michigan's veteran Congressman John Dingell. Dingell, who was first elected to Congress in 1955 and is known as the "Dean of Congress" for his long service, boasts a formidable legislative record and a back-room savvy undiminished by his advanced age -- skills that were on display last week as he managed House Democrats' successful push to expand children's health insurance in the face of all the procedural obstacles Republicans could concoct.

But there's a dark side to his power and ruthlessness: he uses it not just to aid progressive efforts like keeping children healthy, but is often as willing to use it on behalf of his home-state auto industry (and polluters in general), with little regard for the effects of his actions on the environment, consumers, or the political prospects of his fellow Democrats. Most recently, that meant using his considerable legislative heft to obstruct Democratic efforts to tackle the global climate crisis and enhance energy independence -- efforts that would, among other things, require automakers to manufacture more efficient engines. The auto industry has long opposed almost every government effort to regulate their operations, from requiring seat belts to installing catalytic converters.

Dingell has had considerable power to gum up the works on their behalf. As Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, his fiefdom includes almost all energy and environmental policy. In a nod to Dingell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi excluded an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency -- despite the fact that the Senate included such an increase in its energy bill and more than 200 House co-sponsors have publicly backed the measure. It was a notable gap in a bill that otherwise included aggressive measures to tackle the climate crisis and secure energy independence, like diverting $16 billion in subsidies from oil and gas companies towards clean energy. (Dingell staffer Jodi Seth noted in an email that Dingell supports a significantly weaker increase in fuel efficiency standards.)

Nevertheless, there are signs that Dingell's influence is on the wane, and that his early victories have been merely symbolic ones.

Earlier this summer, Dingell floated an energy proposal that could almost have come out of Dick Cheney's energy task force. Not only did it propose massive subsidies for dirt fossil fuels like coal and prohibit increases in automobile fuel efficiency, it took a somewhat gratuitous swipe at Pelosi's home state by revoking California's more than 30-year-old authority to set its own cleaner air standards.

Pelosi and other members of the House caucus publicly rejected Dingell's affront, and he was forced to drop the proposal, seemingly surprised at the backlash it had generated. Weeks later, he floated a proposal for a carbon tax, not because he seemed to want it pass, but because he wanted to demonstrate that the American people and Congress were unwilling to embrace the costs associated with global warming. But his proposed carbon tax has gotten little traction and stands almost no chance of being included in legislation passed by the House.

And during Saturday's energy bill debate, Dingell opposed a requirement that utilities get at least 15 percent of their energy from clean sources such as wind and solar power; but his position was a lonely one in a Democratic caucus increasingly responsive to constituents' demands for action on global warming, and to Pelosi's leadership. (Seth, the Dingell staffer, said in an email that Dingell only opposed the Renewable Energy Standard because it hadn't gone through his committee, not because he was inherently opposed to the idea.) Despite his opposition, the amendment passed by a comfortable margin.

It was an unusual position for Dingell -- he's rarely on the losing side of votes. If he sees the political winds blowing against him, he usually cuts a deal and retains a seat at the table, but the value of having him at the table seems to be diminishing.

Part of the reason for Dingell's decreasing power is that he's become rather unpopular within a Democratic caucus that's willing to tolerate internal policy differences, but increasingly unwilling to accept his barely veiled attacks on Pelosi and his open war with the environmental movement, which is providing more and more ground troops to Democratic field operations on Election Day. In a recent interview with The New Republic, he lashed out at what he called "damned environmentalists." In another interview, he implied that Nancy Pelosi was just one in a long line of Democratic leaders who would try and fail to diminish his power.

Indeed, talking with Democratic members of Congress about Dingell is like pulling teeth. Few are willing to go on the record about him. Even those who do can't bring themselves to utter the gushing encomiums that congressmen, regardless of their real feelings, usually use to describe powerful chairmen. "There's no problem with Chairman Dingell," said Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel, in one of the nicer on-the-record comments made in an informal survey of House Democrats involved in energy policy.

Progressives and environmentalists are far more scathing (and much more willing to go on the record with their criticisms). MoveOn.org labeled Dingell "The Dingellsaurus" in radio ads, while Greenpeace recently called for his removal as chairman.

It's the kind of external sniping that Dingell could have laughed off in the past, but he's got a very limited reserve of goodwill left from insiders -- and the criticism seems to be getting to him. When a group of about 20 Greenpeace members rallied outside his office in Ypsilanti on Monday morning to protest his obstruction of meaningful global warming legislation, Dingell responded with a news release dripping in sarcasm "welcoming out-of-state Greenpeace staff" and announcing that he would deliver them "Michigan Welcome Baskets" that included, as Dingell's news release put it, "some of the wonderful products made in Michigan including, Vernors and Faygo pop (or, as many of the Greenpeace members might say, 'soda')."

A Greenpeace spokesman responded that only one of the 20 plus people in attendance were from out of state; the rest were long-term Michiganders like Greenpeace member Julie Hyzy, a 27 year resident of Ann Arbor.

"It concerns me that he's describing his own constituents in a way that de-legitimizes our concerns about the health of the climate and his role in dealing with catastrophic climate change," Hyzy said in an interview after the event.

Dingell's lack of support is why his success at keeping increased fuel efficiency standards out of the energy bill is likely to be only a temporary victory. The Senate included the higher standards in its energy bill and a House-Senate conference committee appears likely to adopt both increased automobile efficiency and the clean energy standard opposed by Dingell.

"I am confident that we will pass a bill that goes to the president's desk that includes an increase in [fuel efficiency] standards," Hoyer said last Tuesday following a meeting of the Democratic caucus.

With a talented vote-counter like Hoyer lined up against him, the Dingellsaurus may finally be headed for political extinction.