Shortly after Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., won the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in December 2010, he invited all the former committee chairmen and their wives to dinner at Carmine’s in downtown Washington.
The famous New York Italian restaurant had just opened its D.C. location and provided a private dining room for the party of 12. But this was no routine gathering. It was the first time all of the committee’s former chairmen had assembled in a room together, men who have all held one of the heaviest gavels in Congress.
Energy and Commerce is the oldest standing legislative committee in the House, having operated nonstop for more than 200 years. More than a thousand bills introduced in the last Congress were referred to the panel and its 54 members (only Ways and Means handled more). It has a budget that exceeds $10 million and more than 100 staffers, second only to the Appropriations Committee on both counts.
Energy and Commerce also has the broadest jurisdiction in Congress, covering a divergent basket of issues that includes telecommunications, energy and environmental policy, food and drug safety, international trade—even sports. It oversees the departments of Energy, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission.
Accordingly, some of the most memorable moments in Congress over the past three decades have happened in E&C chambers, including the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990, the historic testimony of tobacco executives in 1994, numerous hearings on the BP oil spill, and President Obama’s health care overhaul in 2010.
“There were a lot of memories going on, everybody was bringing up different things about our work and time together,” said former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who was chairman of the committee from 2001 to 2004.
Everyone Upton invited came, including Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, whom Upton had just defeated in an ugly fight for the chairmanship, and Rep. Henry Waxman, the California liberal who was the incoming ranking member. Former Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., long a force on the panel, was there, as was another past chair, former Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va. “It wasn’t political,” Tauzin recalled. “It was just about us getting together to celebrate our careers on the committee. If Fred had his druthers, he’d do more of that.”
But the next two years would contain little to celebrate.
During the last Congress, the committee wielded one of the loudest Republican megaphones in the House, home to messaging battles over President Obama’s signature health care law, EPA regulations, and Solyndra, the stimulus-backed solar company that went bankrupt.
For all the headlines these issues have made, some say the committee’s Republican leaders have little of substance to show for it. The health care law still stands, none of the committee’s environmental bills became law, and the panel’s oversight of Solyndra’s failings didn’t trigger any legal or regulatory changes. But to a House GOP majority operating with a Democratic Senate and presidency, pushing those issues was necessary, even if they knew they wouldn’t produce actual legislation.
“As a first step, our members wanted to address issues that had gone too far, simply asking EPA to slow down and consider the impact of its actions on the economy,” said Gary Andres, the committee’s staff director. “Everything we did must be looked at in its context. You had four years of Democratic majority, two years of the Obama presidency. The pendulum had swung pretty far in the other direction—Republicans needed to provide some balance.”
Many Republicans and Democrats say the committee is not as powerful as it was under Dingell during the ’80s and ’90s, when he led the passage of the landmark Clean Air Act amendments with strong bipartisan support and waged intense congressional investigations into both Republican and Democratic administrations. But the loss in committee power isn’t unique to Energy and Commerce. Many experts say that no committee is as strong as it once was before former Speaker Newt Gingrich shifted power to leadership in the mid 1990s.
Add to that the fact that Congress has grown more polarized—and more conservative—in recent years, with redistricting creating safer districts for both parties, and the result is a committee with fewer moderate members. “When I was there, we used to still have some relatively conservative Democrats to work with,” said Bliley, who chaired the panel from 1995 to 2001. “These days, it looks like they’re only putting those of the hard-left on the committee. That’s made Chairman Upton’s job harder. And yes, the Republicans have put very conservative members on, too. It’s not a one-way street.”
As a relatively moderate Republican, Upton was forced to carry the agenda of a more conservative GOP that is frustrated with almost all the policies Obama is pushing.
This article appears in the April 18, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Inside the Energy and Commerce Committee.
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