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Why The Dingell-waxman Dispute Matters

So who will be chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee when January rolls around? It's unclear. John Dingell and Henry Waxman are both claiming they have enough support. As E&E Daily reports, Waxman's backers are pointing to the 152 House Democrats who signed a letter last month calling for steeper cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions than those proposed by Dingell and Virginia congressman Rick Boucher. (The Dingell-Boucher bill won't start reducing CO2 emissions until 2030 or so, thanks to various cost-control measures—way too sluggish for many enviros.)

Then again, Dingell—who's been a fixture in the House since 1955—still has plenty of clout, and his supporters held a press conference on Friday to beat back the insurgency. "There's lots of members of Congress that think they're going to be better than other chairman," quipped Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle. "That's certainly not a basis for challenging the chairmanship under Mr. Dingell." Doyle also dismissed the idea that Dingell was bogging down climate legislation. To be sure, there's not a committee chairman alive who'd give up his seat without a brawl, but, particularly with Detroit's automakers gasping for air right now, one would expect Dingell to be extra-reluctant to surrender influence over the nation's energy policy. (It was Dingell, for instance, who reportedly helped soften the fuel-economy conditions attached to Congress's $25 billion loan to Ford, Chrysler, and GM.)

Now, from what I've been hearing lately, there may be another aspect to this fight, too—one that has to do with how the House now operates. In the old days, if you wanted to pass a bill, it would first have to go through the relevant subcommittee, then the full committee, then out to the floor… you know, the Civics 101 tap dance. That started changing dramatically after Republicans took over Congress in 1994, as the GOP leadership under Gingrich and—especially—Tom DeLay centralized power at the expense of the old bulls heading up congressional committees. Legislation got written behind closed doors by leadership aides with a few other staffers and principals, and then sent directly to the floor—essentially bypassing the traditional committee markup process.

Ever since Democrats regained the House in 2006, Nancy Pelosi hasn't been shy about taking this approach. Last year, Dingell was irate that Pelosi's negotiators did most of the work hammering out a deal on fuel-economy standards for vehicles—an area that, by rights, should've been his domain. I suspect, though haven't been able to confirm, that this might be part of Waxman's pitch to committee members—Dingell's "go-slow" approach to global-warming legislation runs the risk of slowly relegating the committee to the sidelines on energy issues. (Another piece here is that oil and coal companies prefer to deal with energy legislation that goes through the usual markup process—and Dingell is known for running thorough markups—since it's easier to lobby the 56 members of the energy committee than try to deal with a bill after it hits the floor.)

It's an interesting battle, and one that could have major consequences for what Congress does on climate and clean-energy legislation in the next two years, so worth keeping an eye on. I'm also curious what Obama thinks about this. He did, intriguingly, tap Phil Schiliro, a longtime top Waxman aide, to handle congressional relations for his White House transition team. But if that's a sign of anything, no one's saying what, and Dingell's supporters insist that Obama is steering clear of this dispute for now.

--Bradford Plumer