Lauren Victoria Burke/AP
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

Rep. John Dingell’s Loss Deals Blow to Auto Industry’s Political Clout

November 21, 2008 12:58 PM
by Christopher Coats
A surprise defeat in the race for the Energy and Commerce Committee’s chair sent Detroit’s longest serving and strongest advocate packing, and signaled hope for environmentalists.

California’s Waxman Wins

Providing a possible setback for the automobile industry’s influence in Washington, California Congressman Henry Waxman ousted Michigan’s John Dingell from the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, a position the industry advocate has held for 28 years.

After a 137-122 secret ballot, which surprised many, the Democratic Caucus voted to replace the veteran congressman, who has spent the majority of his 53 years in Congress as a staunch advocate for his home state’s auto industry.

Since replacing his father in Michigan’s 15th Congressional District in 1955, Dingell has worked to protect his state’s largest industry from restrictive regulation and emissions standards, which have been the source of increased pressure from environmental advocacy groups in recent years.

Last year, Dingell led the fight to restrict Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in a comprehensive energy bill, earning him scorn from advocacy groups like MoveOn and a place on Motor Trend magazine’s 2008 Power List.

As head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell held court over issues such as emissions standards and corporate restrictions on greenhouse gases.

Offering a stark ideological contrast to Dingell’s car industry advocacy, Waxman is widely seen as a staunch environmentalist who most feel with take a more aggressive stance on global warming.

Speaking at the closed-door caucus meeting, Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley reportedly accused Dingell of standing in the way of environmental reforms, according to Politico.

For his part, Dingell referred to Waxman as an “anti-manufacturing, left-wing Democrat” after the California congressman announced he was going to challenge him for the committee chair.

Impact: A change in priorities

The removal of Dingell could not come at a worse time for the auto industry, which is currently courting Congress for a $25 billion financial infusion to help Detroit’s top three car manufacturers, General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler, stave off bankruptcy.

Late Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bailout package lacked the necessary votes to pass, adding that the companies could present a restructuring proposal by Dec. 8, and if approved by the Banking Committee, he would present it to both houses of Congress for a vote.

Talking Points Memo reported that Waxman’s ascent could mean a closer working relationship between the Energy and Commerce Committee and an Obama White House, after it was revealed that the president-elect recently appointed Philip Schiliro as his congressional liaison.

Schiliro has spent the last 25 years working for Waxman.

Further, the vote represented a change in the Democrats' strict adherence to a seniority system when it came to committee chairmanships. The 82-year old Dingell has served since the Eisenhower administration and was set to become the longest serving committee chairman in the House, until the Thursday vote.

Background: Aware of changing climate

Perhaps aware of the auto industry’s waning popularity when it came to issues such as global warming and stricter emissions standards, Dingell recently began touting efforts to combat climate change, including the introduction of a possible carbon tax bill in 2007.

However, the Detroit congressman’s proposals were not enough for the legislative body’s environmental advocates, making Dingell a target for Waxman; a situation not helped by Dingell's uneven relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Waxman’s fellow Californian, Pelosi, endorsed Dingell’s primary challenger in 2002.

Opinion & Analysis: Not a positive step for Detroit

One of Dingell’s strongest defenders in the press, Motor Trend, saw Waxman’s ascent to the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee as a bad decision. The magazine wrote that the California congressman would like “nothing better than to adapt stricter California Air Resources Board standards nationally.”

Releasing their editorial before the Nov. 20 vote, the magazine followed conventional wisdom and doubted that Waxman had the votes to topple Dingell.

Related Topic: A family affair

Dingell was not the only member of his family to be facing tough times, with increased scrutiny on car companies and their dwindling finances. The New York Times reported last week on Dingell’s wife, Debbie Dingell, who is currently a senior executive at General Motors and stands to lose her position, if not her job, if Congress does not pass a financial bailout bill before next year.

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