Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who will be in charge of energy policy in Congress?

The Executive isn't the only branch of government ordering up moving vans. A good number of long time members of Congress have retired, and of course there will be turnovers in seats as a result of this past Tuesday's election. Add to that the fact that President-elect Obama is likely to tap several current members of both the House and Senate to serve in his Administration. Rahm Emanuel, who just won reelection to the House before being tapped as Obama's Chief of Staff, is just the first to leave an option seat behind him. So there will be some jockeying for positions going on over the next month or two.

But another trend (okay, not sure if it's a trend, or a couple of cases) is the removal or attempted removal of some of the older members from their vaunted positions of power on various committees. I had noticed this early on and then this morning saw this article on the Politico web site: No Congress for Old Men.

Mainly the article deals with two high profile cases. After serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee for 50 years, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has voluntarily stepped down from his chairmanship. Voluntary is a relative term in government, and it was clear that he would be forced out if he didn't opt to do so willingly. At 90+ years old, it was time to release the chairmanship to someone who can more effectively run the Committee. This is arguably the most important committee in the Senate since it handles the money...No appropriations, no program (even if the program exists on paper). I'm not sure who will take over as chair, though there are quite a few well known names serving on the committee, most of whom are returning for the next Congress (though there are a few others that have either retired or been defeated [or in the case of Ted Stevens, might still win his election only to be forced out]).

The other big case pits one of the most vocal liberal members of the Democratic party (Rep. Henry Waxman of California) against one of the venerable and powerful chairs of the Energy and Commerce Committee (Rep. John Dingell of Michigan). This particular power struggle is fascinating and has potentially major ramifications for future energy legislation.
Most will remember Waxman's activism against the tobacco industry and others in his role as Chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As might be expected from a California representative, Waxman is very environmentally friendly (according to environmental groups). He also sponsored the House's version of the "Kid Safe Chemical Act" that would dramatically reform the Toxic Substances Chemical Act (TSCA) [Senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored the original bill in the Senate]. You pretty much know where Waxman will be on any issue.

John Dingell, on the other hand, is a bit of a paradox. He is generally considered a liberal Democrat, and throughout his career he has been a leading congressional supporter of organized labor, social welfare measures and traditional progressive policies. He also "was a primary force behind enactment of the National Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act of 1965, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act of 1977, the Safe Drinking Water Amendments of 1986, and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990." But Dingell is from Michigan, which has put him in the position of actually thwarting legislation that would increase the CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards, based on his feeling that it would hurt the already limping auto industry that remains a big part of Michigan's industrial base. Furthermore, Dingell's wife is a lobbyist for General Motors (and actually a decendant of the founders of GM). While Dingell is considered a reliable and powerful member of the Democratic caucus, he has been at odds with Speaker Pelosi and others on CAFE and climate change issues.

This, of course, has potentially huge ramifications for the prospects of developing sustainable energy policy, which is a goal that President-elect Obama has indicated is high on his list of priorities. So, would having someone like Waxman (a California, "business-oversight" guy) or Dingell (a Michigan, "I know the auto industry" guy) in charge of the committee that will ultimately play a large role in our energy policy of the future? Would Waxman's views result in push-back from industry? Would Dingell's views put him in a better bargaining position with an industry that will likely be further affected by changes to energy policy?


No comments: