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The Speaker vs. The Dean

The U.S. Congress is an intriguing place inhabited by plenty of charismatic leaders and back-bench eccentrics. Collecting all those egos under one dome, as you would expect, results in plenty of rivalries -- many of which are rooted in personal battles rather than ideological animus.

Rep. John Dingell
John Dingell was first elected to the House in 1955. As the once and current chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he has tremendous influence on issues ranging from health care reform to energy policy. (The Washington Post)

Today's example is the intra-party rivalry between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), who in addition to his powerful committee seat also happens to be the dean of the House, having served 51 years and counting.

[For a broad look at the internal minefield Pelosi is trying to navigate, check out the story by Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman in today's paper]

The latest flare-up in the Pelosi-Dingell feud came last week, when Pelosi announced plans to create a special committee chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to hold hearings on the issue of global warming. From the outside, the decision appeared to be one based on the political calculus that Dingell, hailing from the home state of the U.S. auto industry, would not be as aggressive in pushing an issue that inevitably would deal with reducing emissions from cars.

Trying to avoid a bloody battle, Pelosi didn't give the special committee any legislative power and instead said she hoped that it would be a vehicle to spur Dingell and the six other committees with some jurisdiction over various aspects of climate change to act.

But the arguments over committee logistics masks what has been a long-simmering shadow boxing match between the speaker and the dean.

Back in the late 1990s, Pelosi began to campaign for the then non-existent post of House Majority Whip, in the belief that Democrats would win back the majority in the 2000 elections. Once Democrats won back control, she knew that other top Democrats would move up into the speaker and majority leader posts, leaving open the powerful whip's post.

In May 2000, again operating under the assumption that Democrats would win back the House later that year, Dingell endorsed Maryland's Steny Hoyer for majority whip, citing Hoyer's respect for committee work. "I know I'm not the only member who believes that the current majority often has demeaned the House and the legislative process generally over the last six years," Dingell wrote at the time in a letter to the Democratic caucus. "Steny will work hard to put an end to that disturbing trend."

The 2000 elections didn't unseat the GOP House majority, but early in 2001 Minority Whip David Bonior (Mich.) announced that he was vacating his leadership post as he prepared to run for governor. His decision prompted a Pelosi-Hoyer face off, which Pelosi won handily.

The Dingell-Pelosi rivalry continued into the 2002 election cycle, when Dingell was redistricted into the same district as a more liberal female member, then-Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) -- who also happened to be actively supporting Pelosi's bid against Hoyer.

Rivers had supported Pelosi in the whip's race against Hoyer. And while most senior members of the House Democratic caucus steered clear of taking sides in any primaries caused by redistricting, Pelosi repaid Rivers's support by siding with her over Dingell in the 2002 primary. Pelosi donated $5,000 from her leadership PAC and helped raise more money for Rivers.

Dingell, angered, went on to win the primary handily,

Over the past four years, Pelosi-Dingell relations seemed to warm, but after the November midterms, Dingell again opposed Pelosi's interests by backing Hoyer for majority leader over Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.), a close Pelosi ally who went on to suffer a lop-sided defeat to Hoyer.

Creating the climate change committee under Markey's leadership was another salvo aimed at Dingell, as it can be interpreted as a shot at Dingell's institutional power.

By week's end, Dingell had rallied supporters in his committee and was actively working to ensure that the new special committee would be given a set deadline for the amount of work it could do, which would hobble its ability to push legislation through the chamber..

Keep a close watch to see who fires the next shot in this rivalry.

By Paul Kane  |  January 22, 2007; 5:45 PM ET
Categories:  Dem. Leaders , House  
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john dingell is a walking ad for mandatory retirement.

Posted by: cd | January 23, 2007 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Dingell blocked increasing fuel efficiency standards in the 1990s and look what good it did the Big 3 automakers. It allowed them to get hooked on SUVs and full-size pickup trucks. And now they are sucking wind in the race against the Japanese automakers. Short-term gain, long-term loss. Although I admire Dingell, on this point I can only hope Speaker Nancy burns him like Piston fans burning Detroit iron after an NBA championship.

Posted by: Garak | January 23, 2007 10:18 AM | Report abuse

While I don't always agree with Mr. Dingell's policy views or his approach to legislating, I am hesitant to agree with Speaker Pelosi's approach to address global climate change by creating a new select committee on the subject.

True - I believe global warming is an urgent matter to solve and we haven't much time. However, just like the first 100 hours, when Democrats excluded the House Republicans from offering their ideas to bills on the floor, I think it is a mistake to pass climate change legislation by the most expedient way.

We may be able to get a climate change bill through the House via Mr. Markey's select committee, but by going around the process and shortchanging the hearing and markup process, I think we'll end up with a political product that won't have the buy-in of a significant minority of Americans. As we found out when we were in the minority, legislating out of the speaker's office and only going by the words of the majority of the majority is a recipe for greater partisanship and eventual electoral disaster.

Further, up until the Republican victory in 1994 through 2006, the committee system served this nation well. If we shortchange the committees and boot the chairmen to the legislative sideline unless they follow the party orthodoxy verbatim, then we're no better than the Republicans that ruled the Hill for the past 12 years.

I don't agree with Mr. Dingell's views on climate change and I think it's shameful that he's been one of the biggest roadblocks to credibly address the issue, but I don't think we should kill the system because of one individual.

Posted by: DemOnTheHill | January 23, 2007 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Agreed. Dingell has a world/national view that is out of date. We don't need to channel Dick Cheney here. Al Gore would be a more constructive choice.

Posted by: Judge C. Crater | January 23, 2007 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Webb can avoid the SOTU Curse, because only the deadenders support Bush and his Reds in the Red House.

Posted by: Will in Seattle | January 23, 2007 8:00 PM | Report abuse

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