Waxman's Win Marks Seismic Shift in House
By Ben Pershing
Democrats have a comfortable majority now in the House, and they will again in January. Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker now, and she will be again in January. In a capital that is in the midst of a titanic change, House Democrats have been a relatively calm sea of stability since Election Day. Until this morning.
Rep. Henry Waxman's (D-Calif.) defeat of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) for the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel represents a huge shift in the way the Democratic Caucus runs itself, and in the broader culture that has developed over decades around a few hard and fast rules governing the distribution of power on Capitol Hill.
What does Waxman's victory really mean going forward? Given the shear scope of the panel's jurisdiction, and how long it's been since anyone other than Dingell was the committee's top Democrat, it will be weeks or months before all of the effects of Waxman's win are known. But here are three implications that are clear right now.
1) Seniority Is Dead. In a way, the House Democratic Caucus has long operated like a public employees' union. Seniority ruled the day, and if you stuck around long enough -- meaning you had a safe enough district to get reelected cycle after cycle -- you would keep moving up the committee ladder, almost without regard for merit. That's not to say the current crop of chairmen are necessarily bad at their jobs (though some probably are), only that the people who hold gavels don't necessarily have them because they are the agreed-upon masters of their field.
In theory, Democrats did away with seniority as the determinative principle for chairmen back in 1974, but in practice the longest-serving committee member has nearly always gotten the gavel.
Notably, since Democrats captured control of the House in the 2006 elections, Pelosi has kept on the books a Republican-authored rule mandating six-year term limits for chairmen, so many of the current chairs would be termed out in 2012. But there have been rumbles from Dingell and his ilk that they would try to get that rule scrapped, a step that appears highly unlikely given today's events.
Now, there are some nervous chairmen out there. If Dingell can be beaten, why not Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) or Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.)? Yes, those chairmen will support each other, just as most probably voted for Dingell. But there are a lot more members in the Democratic Caucus who aren't chairmen than members who are, and many of them would like their own shots at a gavel someday.
Also nervous today -- lobbyists. The seniority system has made it easy for K Street to know who will be in charge of a committee tomorrow, and the day after that, and thus where to put its money and whose former aides to hire. The system begat a cycle: The longer chairmen stayed in place, the more allies they had on K Street and the more money they raised, thereby cementing their power and helping them stay even longer.
Dingell has been the top Democrat on the Energy panel for 27 years. Is that really fair to the other members of the committee? The most common argument made in favor of the seniority system is that it allows chairmen to build up expertise. But Waxman has been on the committee for more than three decades himself. Is he really not an expert? Obviously, the "seniority = expertise" argument didn't fly today with the majority of the Democratic Caucus, which means it probably never will again.
After this morning, seniority isn't out the window altogether -- no freshman will chair a committee anytime soon -- but it's hurting.
2) Ideology Matters. The fact that seniority was the deciding factor in handing out chairmanships for so long meant that ideology wasn't. Members didn't get and keep their gavels because the majority of their colleagues thought they were right on the issues, they got them because their constituents did and kept sending them back to Washington for another term.
The lawmakers who can be reelected for decades tend to be from the safest districts. Which has generally meant that the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats have accrued seniority. Dingell is an unusual case, in that he is actually to the right of his Caucus on a few issues, notably on abortion and, most importantly, on the environment. His district has a massive auto industry presence and his wife, Debbie, is a senior executive at General Motors; she is actually a descendant of the company's founders.
So for years, Dingell has resisted efforts to force auto companies to make cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Though there are other Democrats who represent industrial states and share Dingell's concerns, most members of the party lean toward the environmentalist side. Dingell simply does not represent the majority of Democrats' views on environmental issues, and until today, he suffered no consequences for that.
Now, he's suffering, and the next time a chairman decides to use his committee to advance the interests of his district while ignoring the interests of most of his colleagues, he might think twice.
3) Pelosi Rules. Lest anyone doubted who was in charge of House Democrats, today's vote provided a helpful reminder.
Pelosi was publicly neutral in the race, but her silence spoke volumes. Her unwillingness to back the longtime chairman or publicly back the seniority system made it clear where she stood. Generally, if journalists write something that Pelosi or her staff think is wrong, they will hear about it in short order. Many reporters wrote that Pelosi was believed to be silently backing her fellow Californian Waxman, and Pelosi's office made no effort to dissuade the press from that storyline.
(House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), meanwhile, tried to broker a deal between the two gavel contenders and then spoke out in favor of Dingell at Wednesday's Steering Committee meeting, and Dingell lost that vote anyway, before losing today's as well.)
Pelosi has made it clear to chairmen since becoming Speaker that they answer to her. Most of the time, their interests and hers coincide, but her battles with Dingell have been the most high-profile exception. The Speaker created a special panel on global warming issues specifically because she knew Dingell wouldn't move a bill she found acceptable, and then Dingell mocked and tried to stymie the creation of that special committee. Pelosi is a committed environmentalist, and Waxman's win has cleared away her biggest internal obstacle to passing more stringent regulations on that front.
Beyond Dingell, the erosion of the seniority system means that Pelosi's hand is stronger than it was yesterday. Whereas before chairmen were able to defy their leaders largely without fear of losing their jobs, now they know that's no longer the case. Pelosi was already shaping up to be one of the most powerful Speakers in recent history. Now, with chairmen less likely to freelance and a larger majority being sworn in next January, she's even stronger.
November 20, 2008; 3:10 PM ET
Categories: Agenda , Dem. Leaders , House
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