With his dramatic capture of the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has reinforced the liberal intentions of the Democratic-controlled Congress. That, in turn, could provide a major boost for the prospective Obama administration as it proceeds on key domestic issues in the panel's domain.
In the House Democrats' first ouster of a committee chairman since 1985, the Democratic caucus this morning voted 137-122 for Waxman to replace John Dingell, D-Mich., who has been the top Democrat on that panel since 1981 and chairman for 16 of those years. Waxman has been a member of the panel since he was first elected to the House in 1974 and has been a prolific lawmaker on health and environment issues. Since 1997, he has also chaired the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Speaking to reporters following the momentous vote, Waxman said that "the prevailing view in the caucus [was] we needed a change to get important initiatives passed" in Energy and Commerce's domain of health care, energy and environment. With the election of Barack Obama as president, Waxman added, "We are at a unique moment that comes only once in a generation." (And Waxman's longtime chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, will in a unique position to take advantage of that moment as Obama's chief congressional liaison.)
During the two-week contest, Waxman and his allies had little public comment on his intentions other than to emphasize that his goal for the committee was "to play the essential role of leadership on health and energy issues" on behalf of President-elect Obama.
Waxman allies reinforced his theme that Democrats have limited time to act. "The memory of 1993 and 1994 is seared in a lot of our minds," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., a close Waxman ally since they built a political machine in Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago. "We have to pass the program -- energy, global warming, universal health insurance. In the end, how that best could be done was what most led to this. A lot of feelings, a lot of pressures, a lot of emotions, but basically in the end it was distanced from the individuals and it was more about not letting this be a repeat of those two years."
Although Pelosi did not publicly endorse Waxman, members on both sides of the bitter contest acknowledged her implicit support.
Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., a more junior ally, added after the caucus vote, "I think it's about something that Henry said in the room, it's like picking a football team. You want the very best person who's going to run, who's going to be able to start right away and make that touchdown. To me, we don't have time. We don't have time. We only have two years."
A key element in Waxman's winning coalition was his strong support from the new freshman class, who echoed Obama's message on the need to change Washington. "We got elected on a change mandate and I think Mr. Waxman's message fell on more fertile ground with the freshman class," said incoming Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "Whether it's fair or not, there was a perception that Mr. Dingell was obstructing getting things done in two critical areas, the environment and energy. That and the fact that he has protected the automotive industry.... The problem is, it's now melting down, and I think there's a reassessment going on about whether those particular policies were the right ones."
Waxman also had strong backing from his interest-group allies, especially consumers and environmentalists, who have long clashed with Dingell. "In recent years, Mr. Dingell supported legislation preempting state food safety and labeling laws that exceeded federal standards; Mr. Waxman did not," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who added that Waxman's priorities are more in line with those of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Obama.
Dingell's allies, for their part, depicted him as the centrist alternative. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., a new co-chairman of the self-styled fiscal conservative Blue Dogs, said that Dingell had "a proven track record of [meeting] the needs of different sections of the country" and she criticized Waxman's "divisive and unproductive challenge." Following the caucus vote, she said there was "no reason" to deny Dingell the chairmanship.
But at 82 and wheelchair-bound following recent knee surgery, Dingell found it difficult to fit the image of fierce defender of the prerogatives of his committee and its wide-ranging jurisdiction. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., cautioned, "Whether you are a Blue Dog or a liberal, the American people spoke during the election. They hunger for change."
The outcome also was a big win for Pelosi, who has clashed repeatedly with Dingell both before and since the Democratic takeover of Congress two years ago. She also has sought to limit the influence of House committee chairmen and the automatic rule of the seniority system. Waxman did not directly challenge the old regime, though he pointedly told reporters that seniority "should not be a grant of property rights for three decades or more."
Although Pelosi did not publicly endorse Waxman, members on both sides of the bitter contest acknowledged her implicit support. It was evident, for example, in the public backing of Waxman by loyal Pelosi ally George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the Education and Labor Committee. Another signal of the Speaker's leanings was Waxman's 25-22 victory Wednesday in his initial round with Dingell in the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, where Pelosi appointed 14 of the 51 members.
Ironically, Pelosi has spent much time since the election emphasizing the need for a centrist approach when Democrats take complete control of Washington in January. "We must govern from the middle -- reaching across the aisle to work in a bipartisan way and build consensus," she said Monday at a dinner in the Capitol for new House members from both parties. And Waxman likely will emphasize those themes as he takes control of the panel.
But Waxman's longstanding criticism of the auto industry could foreshadow significant setbacks for Detroit just days after the Senate failed to act on proposals to bail out the Big Three automakers. "It may very well be that Waxman is the person to deliver the bad news to the auto industry that if they want federal help, they need to change the way they do business," said Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College.
The prospect that business will face a tougher time in dealing with the Waxman-led panel was echoed by an attorney who has represented corporate clients before both the Energy and Commerce and Oversight panels. Waxman's approach to oversight will be tougher on business interests than Dingell's has been, he said. As Oversight Committee chairman, Waxman's "hearings are more ideologically focused," he said. "He comes in with an agenda and a less balanced approach."
Dingell and his oversight subcommittee chairman, Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, have used oversight rather than legislation to force industries to change practices, the attorney added. For Waxman, "clearly, his focus will be on legislation," he said. "He'll use oversight toward that end."
That should make for a busy time for Energy and Commerce, and likely will yield productive results for the new Obama administration.