In a political shake-up that could have huge implications for environmental and energy policy reform, Representative Henry Waxman of California has replaced Representative John Dingell of Michigan as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Congressman Dingell (whose district includes my home in Ann Arbor as well as many auto industry towns in southeastern Michigan) is the longest serving member of the House, first elected in 1955. While Dingell has been a strong leader on many traditional environmental issues, such as water pollution and wetlands protection, he has also been a staunch defender of the U.S. auto industry and opposed many policy reforms needed to curb greenhouse gas pollution.
Despite the environmental policy stakes (the committee chair will have tremendous control over climate change legislation and a wide range of other environmental issues), the environmental community mostly stayed quiet during the political fight for fear of ending up on the wrong side of the eventual winner. But privately, most environmentalists backed Waxman, who will be far more aggressive in advancing climate change and energy policy. The only notable environmentalist that publicly supported Dingell was Lana Pollock, President of the Michigan Environmental Council, and a former Democratic state senator from within Dingell’s Congressional district.
Waxman is clearly better suited to aggressively solve the climate-energy mega problem in line with President-elect Obama’s environmental priorities. As this is the most important issue facing the Energy and Commerce Committee (and perhaps Congress) in 2009, Waxman’s win is very good news. Waxman introduced the Safe Climate Act in 2007and has made the issue a top priority. Waxman also used his previous leadership post as Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate the EPA’s terrible record of implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act under President Bush.
While Dingell’s ouster is good news for climate change and energy policy, it does mean a loss of political power for Michigan and the Great Lakes region. A story by CQ (Congressional Quarterly) Politics puts the Dingell loss in the context of a general power shift in Congress from the Midwest to California and East Coast states. Certainly the Midwest (and its labor base and auto industry) lost a ton of clout with Dingell’s defeat. But other Midwestern Congressmen continue to chair powerful committees, most notably Representative Jim Oberstar of Minnesota (chair of the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee). And with Chicago taking over the White House, the Midwest and Great Lakes certainly won’t be forgotten in Washington.
On a personal note, and as a constituent of Congressman Dingell, I want to thank him for his tremendous service in Congress. While one of the most powerful leaders in Washington, he always finds time to come to local meetings in the district, listen to his constituents, and respond to their needs. He is incredibly popular here in Michigan and has everyone’s respect, even if we disagree on specific issues. His work on environmental and conservation issues, going back to the Clean Water Act and other groundbreaking legislation in the 1970’s, shows his commitment to these issues. I hope he can find a way to constructively contribute to solving climate change policy problems in the best interests of the future of his district.