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Waxman's Win Marks Seismic Shift in House

The clash between Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.) and John Dingell (Mich.) was notable in the recently quiet and stable House Democratic caucus.

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.

By Ben Pershing  |  November 20, 2008; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Agenda , Dem. Leaders , House  
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$1000 dollars to ANYONE that can PROVE what HOSPITAL and DOCTOR delivered OBAMA...

Posted by: xinunus | November 20, 2008 5:02 PM | Report abuse

If there was any doubt the remaining House Chairs could still hang on to their gavels four years from now it was removed today. They will lose their gavels come 2012 and could join Dingell on the sidelines sooner (i.e. 2010) if they don't start putting the needs of the nation ahead of their own re-election driven interests. Watching K Street scramble to figure out who to bet their money on without the benefit of relying on the seniority system to determine who has the power will also be interesting. Ah, Change we can believe in! in

Posted by: claffiteau | November 20, 2008 9:25 PM | Report abuse

If seniority is truly dead, I'll happily throw the party. We're in the 2000's, not the 50's and 60's; Obama won because he realized that - if these committee chair holdovers from the olden days start re-enacting the Dem majority politics of the 70's and 80's then their majority will be short-lived.

However, your ideology matters part is ridiculous. Recognizing climate change isn't ideology - it's dealing with the problems confronting our nation. Dingell refused to do that in any meaningful way so now he's come. It's merit that matters and in government getting actual results on your committee's issues is what determines merit.

Posted by: Dan31 | November 21, 2008 2:18 AM | Report abuse

Is this the beginning of the end for the good old boys club and the influence and corruption the big money lobbyists bring to U.S. politics? One can only hope!

Posted by: amasiam | November 21, 2008 2:18 AM | Report abuse

Other than violating a consitutional law, tell me what difference it will really make where Obama was born? Don't get on your high horse about honoring the constitution. Bush and Cheney have trampled it for 8 years. Spend your energy on the real enemy - Federal Reserve and international banking.

Posted by: saxahydros | November 21, 2008 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Waxman is a radical environmentalist. When he runs the last manufactures out of the country, he can turn the lights off.
When you get your electric bill for $600, which has been rationed to 12 hours a day, you may change your mind, if you still have a job. If you live in a tent, no problem.

Posted by: genomega | November 21, 2008 6:43 PM | Report abuse

$1000 dollars to ANYONE that can PROVE what HOSPITAL and DOCTOR delivered OBAMA...
EASY MONEY !!! xinunus

What does this post have to do with the topic of the blog?
The topic is " Waxman's Win Marks Seismic Shift in House."

Posted by: janye1 | November 24, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

It's great that "Buggin's Turn" has taken a knock and hopefully gone for good. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Obama and the Democrats could de-politicise the civil service, whereby civil servants would serve the people and the country without fear or favour ?

Posted by: egbert1 | November 24, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Nancy Pelosi has been a loser of seismic proportions. If she had conducted the business the people voted the last congress in to do, namely begin preceedings against this administration for high crimes and misdeameanors, our country would not be in the condition it is now. And since senority means nothing any more, I would like to suggest for consideration term limits in congress. Not only can we get rid of dead weight--like the too many years that Strom Thurmond stayed and slept office--, but more importantly we could cut down on the amount of pensions the American people would have to payout. I figure since the "conventional wisdom" read conservatives believe the way to solve the auto-bailout problem is to deny thousands of workers and former workers their pensions and healthcare benefits, they (the congress) should suffer the same fate, after all "charity starts at home" (or in the house. I bet we could save billions over the years. They must be made to giveback too, since it is their incompetence that allowed George and company to run roughshod all over the Constitution of these United States. And by the way, how do all these losers get promotions. ONLY IN AMERICA.

Posted by: thommie1 | November 24, 2008 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Well a year ago at a Townhall meeting REP.John Dingell
said "HE WILL INCREASE the GAS TAX by $0.50cents!
Nancy Pelosi and 63 Congressmen(women)signed the U.N.RES 21..On august 5,1992 H.CON.RES353 .EXPRESSING the sense of the CONGRESS that the United STATES a STRONG LEADERSHIP implementing AGENDA 21 .The UN Agenda 21 Programme for Sustainable Development "LEGALLY" binding on the AMERICAN CITIZENn,REP.Pelosi again introduced HJ RES 166. on March 29,1993..
OECD was formed in FRANCE
Love your Country SAVE US NOW

Posted by: sigup | November 25, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Cool- a signal that merit and a unified approach is the way to deal with crisis and reform.

It's amazing how the defeated "Patriot Real Americans" are still fighting the Civil War instead of getting with the program. They are actually rooting for the failure of our current government- regardless of whether it's good for their "Country First"- and these traitors to the nation actually have the gall to label others as "unamerican."

Yeah, like the FBI couldn't possibly have verified the birth place of Obama (Yeah, right, I know- the FBI is also left-wing liberal front organization, isn't that right?) or that because we may agree with legislation propagated in another country populated with fellow humans with similiar concerns regarding the planet we share, that legislation is automatically wrong and diabolical because it was originally proposed and passed by the French.

Back to your survivalist caves, and racially/religiously homogenized enclaves please; we Americans are too busy cleaning up your mess to have you underfoot- shoo!

Posted by: interactidiomas | November 26, 2008 8:24 AM | Report abuse

And I thought the ubiquitous Nigerian bank-draft scams seemed too silly to ever work.

Here's a meaningless challenge:

"$1000 dollars to ANYONE that can PROVE what HOSPITAL and DOCTOR delivered OBAMA...
EASY MONEY !!!" Posted by: xinunus

I'm sure it would be pretty easy to find out which doctor delivered Barrack Obama, and at what hospital. However, collecting the promised $1,000 from "xinunus" should be quite a task!

If I didn't value my reputation for honesty (even under this more-or-less anonymous pseudonym), I would demonstrate how meaningless xinunus' "offer" is by promising one million dollars to anyone who can prove Sarah Palin isn't a space alien.

Posted by: Iconoblaster | November 26, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: myworld | November 26, 2008 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm excited. Let's see if anything actually changes!!

Posted by: persimonix1 | November 26, 2008 5:30 PM | Report abuse

A much more encouraging sign that meaningful change is on the horizon than Obama's cabinet picks.

Posted by: wise42 | November 26, 2008 9:03 PM | Report abuse

If Nancy Pelosi is so strong, why did she give George W. Bush the free ride on impeachment?

President Bush might be found innocent, that's a possibility at any trial. The fact is though that there's enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrent not just one, but a number of trials.

It made a whole lot of people angry when Pelosi made her statement that Bush wouldn't be impeached for any reason.

Let's hope that among whatever other changes that may have come to Nancy Pelosi's congress, there's evidence of congressional Democrats having acquired backbones.

Compare these new age congressional Democrats to members of Tip O'Neil's congress. What would Lyndon Johnson have done as Senate leader? They're both spinning in their graves at the sight of power without backbone.

Posted by: fredfawcett | November 26, 2008 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Now we have Waxman, Pelosi, Reed, and of course, Barney Frank. Obama has his work cut out for him. This line-up of loosers will only bring him grief and lower his own statue. With the mangling of government these four represent and others like them, Obama may be in Bush's position in four years.

Posted by: tommy21 | November 27, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

It is indeed baffling why Nancy Pelosi took impeachment off of the table. And why has the media given her such a free ride on this question? I saw a reporter ask her the logic of her actions and she gave the most bone-headed response. There was no follow up. As a Democrat, I believe the poor favorability numbers of Congress is due to its unwillingness to impeach the numerous war criminals in the Bush administration. Hopefully, the Obama Administration conducts a thorough investigation and begins criminal proceedings again the Shrub and friends for their treason.

Posted by: law1 | November 27, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

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