The Waxman Coup: a Shift, Not a Revolution

Henry Waxman’s bid to oust John Dingell from his perch atop the House Energy and Commerce Committee succeeded on Thursday, with the chamber’s Democratic caucus voting 137-122 to hand him the gavel.

The verdict will have an immediate and significant impact on energy, environmental and health care policy, all of which should loom large in Barack Obama’s first-year agenda, pushing a major power center within the House sharply to the left and into alignment with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s governing vision.

There is also fear among some House veterans, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, that Waxman’s triumph – the first successful bid to depose a Democratic chairman in 23 years, and the first time it’s even been tried since 1996 – will embolden more members to challenge the seniority system that, until now, has guaranteed committee chairmanships to members with the most tenure.

Dingell, who has been in Congress since 1955, first began chairing Energy and Commerce in 1981, the year the panel was formally reconstituted to recognize the growing significance of energy issues. (It had previously been the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.) He held the gavel for 14 years, through the Reagan revolution, the first Bush administration and the first half of Bill Clinton’s first term.

In that time, Dingell, an old-school Democrat with deep ties to organized labor and the auto industry and little interest in the social and cultural agendas of his party’s left wing, occasionally clashed with his more liberal committee colleagues, mainly on environmental issues. But most of his tenure coincided with an era of cheap gasoline, freeing him from pressure to force onerous fuel economy standards on Detroit. It also came during a time when committee chairmen often wielded more power than members of the House leadership, including the speaker.

But when Democrats won back the House in 2006, Dingell quickly learned that the rules of the game had changed. He was given the Energy and Commerce gavel, thanks to the seniority system, but energy policy had become a pressing issue. Gas prices were soaring, global warming had become a trendy cause and, in the wake of 9/11, Americans had grown fearful of their country’s dependence on oil from the Middle East. Plus, after 14 years in the wilderness, House Democrats returned to power with a leader, Nancy Pelosi, who would exercise much more central authority than her pre-’94 predecessors.

When Pelosi decreed that energy policy would be a top priority, Dingell promptly drafted a bill that protected his old friends in Detroit. Pelosi told him this was unacceptable, and she even went and created a new committee – with no formal power – to address global warming, a clear slap in Dingell’s face. And now Waxman, a devout environmentalist with close ties to Pelosi, has taken his gavel away.

In terms of Obama’s legislative agenda, the impact of Waxman’s coup is going to be apparent almost immediately. Had Dingell retained his gavel, he would have used his power to slow down and water down efforts to force even higher fuel economy and emissions standards on the automakers. With Waxman, a liberal whose district includes Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, at the helm, Obama will find a willing partner who, if anything, will be even more aggressive in his desire to overhaul and modernize energy policy. The difference will also be apparent on climate change, a passion of Waxman’s and a topic in which Dingell has only shown perfunctory interest.

Health care legislation will also flow through the committee, but here the difference may be less noticeable. Universal coverage has long been one of Dingell’s pet issues and it’s entirely in keeping with his old-school, labor-friendly ways.

But then there’s the matter of the future of the seniority system.

As Thursday’s vote neared, Dingell’s defenders began framing it as a referendum on the seniority system, which retains wide popularity in the House. Most Americans are probably offended by the idea of a merit-less system that merely rewards longevity, but for many members of the House, it provides the fairest and most reliable path to power possible.

The system is especially popular among the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who have often felt marginalized by the House’s Democratic leadership through the years. (South Carolina’s James Clyburn, who is now the third-ranking House Democrat, has climbed higher in leadership than any other African-American – yet few expect him to climb any higher.) Four decades ago, the Voting Rights Act created a series of black-majority Congressional districts, each overwhelmingly Democratic. As a result, the African-Americans who have won these seats have typically held on to them for multiple terms, often decades. To them, the seniority system is a friend – the reason why, for instance, Charlie Rangel, first elected in 1970, now chairs the mighty Ways and Means Committee.

The fear among seniority-system proponents is that Waxman’s success will devalue the concept of seniority in members’ minds and lay the groundwork for all sorts of future challenges to entrenched chairman. Committee chairmanships, they warn, could end up like regular party leadership slots – the subject of intense campaigns that favor aspirants who rack up favors from their colleagues and shower their fellow Democratic members with campaign cash.

For now, though, this concern is probably overstated. As entrenched as Dingell was, it’s worth remembering that Waxman himself has been in the House for 34 years and has extensive experience on Energy and Commerce. And even with all of the connections he’s made in those 34 years (and, very likely, the quiet support of Pelosi), he was able to unseat the “Dean of the House” by a mere 15 votes. It’s a significant accomplishment, no doubt, but the closeness of the race demonstrates how seriously Democrats still regard the seniority system.

It’s also revealing that the seniority system seems likely to prevail in the race to fill the chairmanship of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Waxman will vacate to take over Energy and Commerce. Next in line for the Oversight gavel is New York’s Edolphus Towns, whose only obvious recommendation for the position is his seniority. Towns has rankled his colleagues and infuriated Democratic leaders this decade by straying from the party line on some key votes, failing to show up for others, and even slipping key committee sessions (as he did recently, when Oversight took up the AIG matter). And yet, reports now suggest that Towns will be given the gavel anyway, even though there is no shortage of Democrats who want it.

Waxman told Democrats that his campaign was about seizing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to move meaningful legislation through Congress that will actually be signed by the president. His colleagues agreed, and made what may turn out to be a once-in-a-generation exception to the rule of the seniority system.

The Waxman Coup: a Shift, Not a Revolution