Nobody ever refers to members of Congress as "lions of the House," but Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) has as thick a mane as any (figuratively speaking, of course). The longest-serving current member, Dingell was writing legislation before Barack Obama was born, and has been at the forefront of congressional efforts to improve consumers' access to healthcare and protect them from harmful drugs. Yet his unceremonious dumping last week as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee might be the best news we've heard since Obama's elevation to the White House.
At the risk of sounding ageist, which Obama was accused of when he said the same thing about John McCain, Dingell just doesn't get it. The 82-year-old lawmaker has been a mettlesome roadblock on the path toward greater energy independence and solutions to climate change for years. He has consistently (and until last year, successfully) defended Detroit automakers against congressional attempts to improve fuel efficiency standards -- a stance that not only contributed to soaring oil prices but ultimately harmed the car makers themselves, because it left them unprepared for a shift in consumer taste toward smaller vehicles. He is also at the center of a vast web of K Street interests, wielding his substantial fundraising powers to buy influence among fellow members of Congress and repaying his big donors, such as the mining industry, by weakening efforts to rein in pollution and greenhouse gases.
His replacement, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), needs little introduction here in his hometown. One of the House's canniest crafters of legislation, Waxman is a tireless proponent of clean energy, environmental protection and progressive healthcare policies. There is no doubt that he will pursue Obama's top objectives, such as expanding health insurance coverage and renewable power, much more quickly than Dingell. The only question is whether he will be able to do it as effectively; widely disliked by conservatives and business interests, Waxman might have a tough time reaching consensus with the other side of the aisle.
Waxman's new post means that like-minded Californians now control the panels in both houses that will oversee climate change issues next year; Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer heads the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Given that this state leads the nation in climate regulation and the development of clean technology, nothing could be more fitting.