Nancy’s Boy: Waxman’s Win, Pelosi’s Putsch

The full Democratic Caucus of the U.S. House just voted and it is now official: Henry Waxman has successfully pushed John Dingell aside as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

This marks the first time in 23 years that a sitting Democratic chairman has been deposed. Waxman, 69, targeted Dingell because of the 82-year-old Michigander’s unwillingness to pursue stringent fuel economy standards and supposed obeisance to Detroit. The incoming Obama administration’s energy and climate change (and health care) agendas will flow directly through Energy and Commerce.

Known as the “Dean of the House,” Dingell, 82, has held his seat since 1955 (before that, it belonged to his father for 22 years) and in three months will become the chamber’s longest-serving member ever. The House’s seniority system originally led to his assumption of the Energy and Commerce gavel back in 1981, the start of a 14-year chairmanship that ended with the Republican Revolution of 1994. When Democrats reclaimed a majority in 2006, he once again became chairman.

The question now is whether Waxman’s successful challenge might embolden other Democrats to challenge the seniority system and seek to wrest gavels from longer-tenured members.

Waxman’s victory also opens up his perch as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania would be in line to take that gavel, but he has said he’d rather keep his Financial Services subcommittee chairmanship. Next in line under the seniority system is New York’s Ed Towns, who has said he wants – and expects – the chairmanship. But Towns will likely be challenged by Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, who is next in line behind him.

Towns has some significant problems within the Democratic caucus, starting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sought to make an example of him in 2005, threatening his committee assignments when he inexplicably strayed from the party line on a key trade-agreement vote. When Towns found himself facing a stiff primary challenge in 2006, Pelosi made clear that no lifeline from Washington would be thrown his way.

New York’s Carolyn Maloney is next in line after Cummings for the Oversight gavel, but she has said she’ll defer to Towns, her fellow (and more senior) New Yorker.