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Warmed Over

John Dingell versus the Earth

John Dingell, the 80-year-old Michigan representative, watches me gaily as I gaze at the rows of antlered stags and snarling boar mounted on the walls of his Rayburn office. The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee tells me he shot the decor himself: a disquieting fact, no doubt, to the environmental activists who know that--since he is shepherding a big energy bill through the House this year--the future of the Earth rests in his hands. But there's more to perturb the greenies: I ask Dingell whether he's watched that virtually required Earth-tending film, An Inconvenient Truth. "No, I didn't," he growls, fixing me with a defiant stare.

Soon enough, unprintables litter our conversation as Congress's oldest member goes off the record to reveal his inner shock jock. His ire is directed at what he calls "these damned environmentalists"--"I have been constantly criticized by them," he says--and at his own colleagues who have been inspired by visions of a global apocalypse. These dire warnings have severely backfired with Dingell: He views their bearers as caught in a rush to save the world while forgetting the sacred mechanisms of legislating and the economic machine that fuels the American dream. "I have no sympathy for somebody who doesn't want to write a balanced bill," he grouses.

This isn't the way Dingell probably hoped to inaugurate his stint as chairman. After 52 years in the House, he could have retired and spent his days munching hot dogs slathered in rivulets of chili and yellow mustard at his favorite hometown "Coney Island" diner. But when the Democrats came back into power, Dingell stayed on to regain the powerful chairmanship that had been his baby throughout the 1980s. Who would forgo--even for the Rust Belt's best chili dog--the chance to reign one last time over greens, oil executives, and Detroit automakers?

But this time around, things have been different--and in a way that makes Dingell's blood boil. With global warming leading the news, environmental activists have become bold and demanding. His own caucus is shifting to their view. And a former adversary--a nerd from green-conscious West Hollywood--is threatening to undermine his empire.

A few weeks ago, a handful of lawmakers on the House energy committee gathered with energy wonks at 101 Constitution Avenue--Washington's glittering-white Taj Mahal of lobbying. The public policy group sponsoring the meeting, the Keystone Center, hosts mediation workshops, and the lawmakers had some toxic issues to work out. Days earlier, Dingell had finally passed around a draft of the committee's big energy-independence legislation, and some of its provisions-- promoting coal, eliminating California's tough car mileage standards--so surprised and incensed the committee's second-ranked Democrat, environmental crusader Henry Waxman, that his office launched a letter of protest. "We have serious concerns about the direction the Committee is heading," read Waxman's mutinous pamphlet, which he convinced eleven fellow Democrats to sign. Dingell, according to one signatory, was "not pleased." By the time of the 101 Constitution meeting, committee Democrats felt stuck in the middle. One hapless representative explained, "'Well, most of us are trying to duck between Henry Waxman and John Dingell,'" recalls Philip Sharp, an energy consultant who served in the House in the 1980s. "And I just said, 'Been there, done that!'"

Dingell and Waxman's history of feuding dates back to 1982, right after Dingell's Caesar-like rule over the energy committee began. The hulking Pole is, according to a former colleague, "a truck. He bulldozes into legislation." His staff and budget were the biggest of any committee, and the only picture hanging in the committee lounge was a satellite photo of the Earth: The joke was that it was a depiction of his jurisdiction.

Waxman, the son of Jewish immigrant grocers from Los Angeles, joined the committee when he arrived in the House in 1975. Five-foot-five, gentle, and a bit rumpled, Waxman tended more toward "insert[ing] himself into a room," says the former colleague. But, alarmed by L.A.'s pollution, he audaciously took on Big John, squelching his attempt to lower car-emissions standards. In return, Dingell persistently smothered Waxman's efforts on acid rain. Their standoff became a House legend. Committee member Ed Markey compared it to a movie he had seen in which an 18-year-old Japanese-American, interned in California, was asked whether he was for the Japanese or the Americans. The boy had answered, "You don't care who wins when your parents are fighting. You just want them to stop."

But they didn't stop until 1989, when George H.W. Bush, who liked to talk about the "need to awaken a new spirit of environmentalism across America," was elected. "Until then, the issue had been, 'Will there be a [pollution] bill?'" recounts George Mitchell, then the Senate's majority leader. "When [Bush] was elected, it became, 'What will be in the bill?'" Waxman entered negotiations in a better position; Dingell worked feverishly to deliver industry something it could live with. Both men take credit for the eventual compromise, the 1990 Clean Air Act. Colleagues simply called it a "miracle."

But, during the Republican years, changes came to the Hill that left Dingell weakened. Newt Gingrich did away with the committee fiefdoms that had given him free rein, setting a precedent of centralizing power to the leadership. And global warming emerged as a huge issue: This year, the environmental questionnaires distributed to Democratic presidential candidates concentrate chiefly on global warming. The Democratic leadership has jumped right on board. In January, Nancy Pelosi tried to tiptoe around Dingell by forming a special committee on global warming. Dingell howled--snarking that such a committee would be "as useful as feathers on a fish" and rounding up other committee chairmen to help him defend his turf--and the committee's authority was neutered. But Pelosi is still keeping him on a leash, ordering him to finish a sweeping energy bill by July 4, a date he always thought was unreasonable.

Meanwhile, Waxman's influence has grown. As the new head of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, his intense hearings schedule and matter-of-fact dressing-downs of Bushie ne'er-do-wells have made him an unlikely hero from the Hill to YouTube. On climate, one alternative-energy activist breezily explains that his colleagues conceive of Waxman as "essentially a rival committee chair" to Dingell, an impression some of his House colleagues seem to share. As Washington Representative Jay Inslee, who signed Waxman's letter, tells me, "The planet is in meltdown mode."

After a meeting with Pelosi last week, the two simply put off much of what was supposed to be in the July 4 bill--including the controversial coal and emissions provisions--until the fall. A staffer passes on Waxman's feelings on the postponement: "I hope our fights are behind us." But sitting with Dingell in his office a day before they announced the compromise, the prospects for detente sounded grim. "I work with everybody," Dingell says curtly when asked about his relationship with Waxman.

But, by painting Dingell as a tyrant and mounting coups, the green-minded may be hurting their own cause. Dingell likes to make deals--he's fashioned successful ones, he reminds me, on environmental issues ranging from ocean dumping to endangered species. And, despite his open frustration, he is no lion in winter, raging on a lonely throne while his court machinates around him. He is still chairman, and his umbrage affects what the House can accomplish. "I keep telling the environmental leaders, 'Don't piss him off,'" says Sharp, almost pleadingly. "It doesn't serve their interests."

Eve Fairbanks is an Associate Editor of The New Republic.