The Democrats' Unfrozen Cavemen Committee Chairmen

My latest op-ed printed in Fort Lauderdale/Broward County's South Florida Sun-Sentinel talks about how the Democrats' fear of taking on some of their caucus's more anachronistic and corrupt members means that despite their promises, they're not likely to be able to make real progress on issues like global warming. The article focuses in particular on the political impact of allowing special interest lackies like House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell to stay in power, even when they allow loyalty to special interests to trump not only the public interest, but also the Democrats' collective political interests. Read a slightly expanded version of the published op-ed below.

Out With the Old
By Glenn Hurowitz

Pretty soon, walking into the House Energy and Commerce Committee will be like entering Unfrozen Caveman Committee Chairman world. The new Democratic Chairman of the powerful committee , whose jurisdiction includes clean air, telecommunications, food and drug safety, and several other wide ranging policy areas, is Michigan's John Dingell. Dingell is known as the "Dean of the House" because he's its longest serving member, having first taken office in 1955.

Unfortunately, some of Dingell's ideas are stuck in the 1950's as well - most notably his thinking about global warming. While most Americans are looking for solutions to a problem that is causing a surge in extreme weather like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, threatening the world's economic vitality, and causing species extinctions around the world, Dingell says he's not even sure if it is a problem.

"This country, this world, the [human] race of which you and I are a part, is great at having consensuses that are in great error," he recently told Grist Magazine's Amanda Griscom Little when asked about his plans for tackling global warming. "And so I want to get the scientific facts, and find out what the situation is, and find out what is the cure, and find out what is the cure that is acceptable to the country that I represent and serve."

That's a striking claim of ignorance for someone who's known around Capitol Hill for his spritely mind and his attention to detail (as well as for having the ability to slip a political knife in between the ribs of his enemies with an alacrity that belies his age).

No, it's not likely ignorance or mental feebleness that's informing Dingell's ambivalence about the greatest environmental challenge confronting the world. It's something a little darker, and it's a characteristic that demonstrates that Capitol Hill may not change as much under the Democrats as they would like to claim.

Dingell's professed global warming myopia is actually more rooted in his decades-long slavishness to the auto industry.  The automakers don't want to be required to build more fuel efficient engines, even though doing so would cut down on pollution, save gas money, and reduce our dangerous reliance on foreign oil. And so they've recycled the same argument that they've used over and over again to dissuade the government from requiring seatbelts to catalytic converters: either that they can't afford to do it, or that American engineers don't have the ingenuity to make it happen. Over and over again since the 1970's, Dingell has given his congressional imprimatur to the industry's misleading claims.  Meanwhile, the automakers Japanese and European competitors have leapfrogged ahead of the Big Three.

Dingell hasn't just misused science when it comes to global warming. Most recently, he used his influence to stop the government from updating a thirty year old rule on how strong car and truck roofs have to be. Dingell's words during that debate eerily echo his skepticism about global warming:

"You may be better off with a strong roof," Dingell told The Detroit News. "But they don't know what a strong roof is, and they don't know how to design the test. They don't know how much better a strong roof will do in a rollover."

While Dingell dithers, more than 10,000 Americans die every year from automobile rollovers. His opposition also helped delay requirements that automakers install seatbelts, and later, airbags - both delays that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives.

So now Dingell is up to his same old game on global warming. Chances are, given Dingell's continued fealty to the automakers, his chairmanship means that he'll be able to delay by many years action to reduce automobile pollution contribution to global warming.

That won't just have negative environmental consequences, but will also be bad news for Democrats politically. If Democrats are seen as allowing special interests to delay action on the environment, it will seem like things haven't changed much from the Republicans. That could turn off both the environmentalist progressives who help provide manpower and money for the Democratic victory, as well as the evangelical Christians increasingly focusing on threats to the survival God's creation like global warming - who may be up for political grabs.

So why are the Democrats allowing a troglodyte like Dingell who's so obviously beholden to a special interest the power to decide such an important issue?  It's because under their current rules and leadership, they don't have much of a choice. Democrats continue to give out committee assignments on the basis of seniority, not competence or even how well a particular chairman represents the sentiments of the majority of the Democratic caucus.

It's that system that has elevated other Unfrozen Cavemen like Jack Murtha to important posts, despite undistinguished and ethically questionable records. Even in the one case this year where incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed over the most senior candidate in line for a position (Representative Alcee Hastings, who had been impeached on corruption charges as a federal judge), she just went right down the seniority line to the next person, apparently not even stopping to inquire whether he was up to the job of protecting America from terrorists and other threats. She settled on Texas's Silvestre Reyes, who, in an interview with Congressional Quarterly's Jeff Stein, couldn't even answer the question of whether al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.

Of course, there is another way, and I'm sorry to report it's the Republicans who pioneered it. When they came into office in 1994, the Republicans did away with the seniority system, requiring committee chairman to run for office, and putting term limits on chairmanship, so that no person accumulated the kind of power that Democrats like Dingell had in the 1980's. Of course, the Republicans ended up abusing this system to the point where the only requirement for a committee chairmanship became loyalty, rather than the right mix of good ideas, competence, and integrity. But in the early years, it meant that at least the Republican committee chairman represented the democratic will of their caucus, not just time spent in the Beltway.

Until the Democrats change their rules and force committee chairmen into real elections for chairmanships, it's going to be Unfrozen Caveman World all over Capitol Hill.

Glenn Hurowitz, president of www.DemocraticCourage.com, is writing a book entitled Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party.

Tags: auto safety, cars, caucus, chairman, chairmen, committees, Congress, corruption, Democrats, dingell, Environment, Global Warming, industry, Murtha, Pelosi, pollution (all tags)

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