Waxman Takes Energy and Commerce Committee Chair

waxman.jpgNow this may seem like major inside-baseball stuff, but when energy and health care reform are at the top of a new President's agenda, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is an important place. And for 300 years, the senior Democrat on the committee has been Michigan's John Dingell, the House's longest serving representative (by 10 years!) and a longtime ally of Detroit. Needless to say, Detroit's interests in energy and health care reform are not necessarily aligned with the interests of the nation.

Thus it was big news when Henry Waxman, the committed environmentalist and progressive California congressman, took the extraordinary step of challenging Dingell for the committee chair, which has been granted via seniority in the Democratic Caucus for decades. Perhaps even more extraordinary, Waxman won:

In a secret ballot vote in the Cannon Caucus Room, House Democrats ratified an earlier decision by the Steering and Policy Committee to replace the 82-year-old Dingell with his 69-year-old rival. The vote was 137-122 in favor of Waxman.

The ascension of Waxman, a wily environmentalist, recasts a committee that Dingell has chaired since 1981 with an eye toward protecting the domestic auto industry in his native Michigan. The Energy and Commerce Committee has principal jurisdiction over many of President-elect Barack Obama's top legislative priorities, including energy, the environment and health care.

Well, Dingell hasn't actually chaired the committee since 1981. Some, though apparently not anyone working at Politico, may remember that Republicans controlled the House from 1995 until 2007.

Anyhow, Waxman had been chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he has done some excellent work, but which was unlikely to be a position of much power with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress. This is good news. Ezra has more:

If you care about action on global warming, that's a very big deal indeed. And frankly, a bit unexpected. Dingell is an old lion in Congress. He's got a lot of friends and has done a lot of people favors. His loss isn't personal. Rather, it's evidence that Democrats are serious enough about climate change to want the relevant committee to be something more than an arm of Detroit.

And though this is a direct victory for Waxman, it's a quiet triumph for Pelosi. Without her tacit support, Waxman's campaign would have quietly died... Recalcitrant chairmen are going to be far more afraid of crossing Pelosi this afternoon than they were this morning.

For why this is not just good news for Waxman and Pelosi, but for progressive policy in this country, check out Harold Meyerson's latest column, in which he describes Waxman as "probably the House's most accomplished legislator in three issue areas that are high on the agendas of the nation and President-elect Barack Obama: universal health care, global warming and enhanced consumer protections" and brands him a "legislative genius." And even more insider-baseball from Ezra: "Waxman's chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, was named last week as Barack Obamas director of legislative affairs. Energy and Commerce is probably the most important committee for Obama's agenda. With Schiliro in the White House and Waxman holding the chairmanship, you're likely to see an intense and easy cooperation between the two branches." Over at TNR, Bradford Plumer and Christopher Orr have more.

As Greg Sargent says, "This is big, big, big."

UPDATE: This also has me wondering about the seniority system in the Democratic Caucus. Technically, the caucus votes to elect each chairmen, and has been doing so since 1974. But custom has been to perpetually elect the senior member of each committee. We'll see if that changes in years to come, or whether this was the exception that proves the rule.