There is usually reason to celebrate when the US House’s tradition-bound seniority system is upset, and such is the case — with a few cautions and codicils — with the determination of the House Democratic Caucus to put California Congressman Henry Waxman in charge of the chamber’s exceptionally powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.
In a showdown of the sort rarely seen in recent decades, the caucus voted Thursday morning to remove the current chair and long-time definitional player on the committee, Michigan Congressman John Dingell. The vote was close – 137 for Waxman, 122 for Dingell – but that does not make it any less significant as an indicator of the direction Congress is likely to take in a period when Democrats will control the executive and legislative branches of a federal government that Waxman thinks should be far more activist in its approach to environmental issues and the regulation of corporations.
That said, the Waxman-Dingell fight was never a precise left-right struggle.
Much of the media portrayed Waxman, the activist chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the current Congress, as the liberal contender. And there is no question that, as the Bush-Cheney administration became increasingly excessive, the Californian was among its loudest and most powerful critics on the Hill – especially during debates on regulatory concerns that have too often been neglected by committee chairs who fail to utilize their broad investigatory powers. Waxman has, as well, been one of the steadiest critics of corporate wrongdoing on the Hill and a genuine ally of the consumer movement.
Dingell, who at 82 is the longest-serving member the current House, was characterized as the conservative player. But that was always more a matter of media shorthand than reality.
Dingell opposed authorizing George W. Bush to attack Iraq, rejected the Patriot Act from the start and has been a stalwart opponent of free-trade deals. The Michigan congressman has, as well, been the House’s longest and steadiest advocate for a national healthcare plan.
Waxman, at 69 another House veteran, voted to authorize George Bush to take the country to war with Iraq, backed the Patriot Act and has abandoned the fair-trade position to back a number of free-trade initiatives opposed by labor, farm and environmental groups. (To his credit, Waxman acknowledged to this reporter several years ago that he was wrong on the war and has a generally strong record on civil liberties issues.)