In a move that signalled dissatisfaction with his ties to the failing auto industry, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee recommended replacing U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) as sitting chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In a nonbinding decision, the Steering and Policy committee supported U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) over Dingell by a 25-22 vote.
The House Democratic Caucus will consider the committee’s recommendation this morning. A final vote today will decide who will lead the committee through the 111th Congress.
Waxman’s unconventional decision to challenge the sitting chairman, formally announced Nov. 5, demonstrates a break from Congress’s unspoken seniority system.
In response to the committee’s vote for Waxman, Dingell’s office released a statement saying it expects Dingell to continue in his role as chair.
“The committee that voted (Wednesday) geographically and politically favors Mr. Waxman,” the statement said. “Dingell’s appeal has always been to the diversity of the entire caucus and when the vote is put to the full caucus (Thursday) we are confident Dingell will continue his chairmanship.”
Waxman’s office did not respond to requests for comment. A statement released on Nov. 5 by Waxman laid out his reasons for seeking the chairmanship.
“When the new Congress starts in January, we will face unprecedented opportunities and challenges,” the statement said. “Some of the most important challenges we face—energy, climate change and health care—are under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee.”
School of Public Policy Prof. Richard Hall, co-author of “The Committee Assignment Process and the Conditional Nature of Committee Bias,” a book about Congressional committees, said he was surprised by Wednesday’s vote.
“This is pretty uncharted territory,” he said, noting that a challenge for committee chairmanship typically doesn’t occur unless a scandal surrounds the current chairman.
Still, Hall predicted that Dingell, who’s served in Congress for 54 years, would retain his chairmanship.
“I’d still put my money on him,” he said.
But if Waxman does win the chairmanship today, Hall said it could have vast repercussions for Michigan.
“The Energy and Commerce Committee has a huge jurisdiction, including just about anything that moves or makes noise, anything that’s bought or sold, the air you breathe and much more,” he told the Michigan Daily earlier this week. “Summing across all of those issues, Dingell’s representation of Michigan’s interests must be huge.”
Hall said it’s possible that Waxman received the level of support he did because of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Hall said Pelosi’s decision not to back either Dingell or Waxman could have been seen as supporting Waxman.
“The question is, did Waxman win in the Steering Committee today because of Pelosi’s tacit support for Waxman,” Hall asked.
As fellow California Democratic U.S. representatives, Pelosi and Waxman have worked together on many issues. Dingell, on the other hand, has fought Pelosi over environmental policy. The Michigan congressman has taken a more conservative approach to the environment, likely because of his ties to the automotive industry.
Dingell’s critics say those ties have led him to call for minimal efficiency standards for cars that have, in turn, hurt the environment.