Warmed over

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JULY 2, 2007

Warmed over

'You're looking at my heads?"

John Dingell, the 80-year-old Michigan representative, watches me
gaily as I gaze at the rows of antlered stags and snarling boar
mounted on the walls of his Rayburn office. The chairman of the
House Energy and Commerce Committee tells me he shot the decor
himself: a disquieting fact, no doubt, to the environmental
activists who know that--since he is shepherding a big energy bill
through the House this year--the future of the Earth rests in his
hands. But there's more to perturb the greenies: I ask Dingell
whether he's watched that virtually required Earth-tending film, An
Inconvenient Truth. "No, I didn't," he growls, fixing me with a
defiant stare.Soon enough, unprintables litter our conversation as Congress's
oldest member goes off the record to reveal his inner shock jock.
His ire is directed at what he calls "these damned
environmentalists"--"I have been constantly criticized by them," he
says--and at his own colleagues who have been inspired by visions
of a global apocalypse. These dire warnings have severely backfired
with Dingell: He views their bearers as caught in a rush to save the
world while forgetting the sacred mechanisms of legislating and the
economic machine that fuels the American dream. "I have no sympathy
for somebody who doesn't want to write a balanced bill," he
grouses.

This isn't the way Dingell probably hoped to inaugurate his stint as
chairman. After 52 years in the House, he could have retired and
spent his days munching hot dogs slathered in rivulets of chili and
yellow mustard at his favorite hometown "Coney Island" diner. But
when the Democrats came back into power, Dingell stayed on to
regain the powerful chairmanship that had been his baby throughout
the 1980s. Who would forgo--even for the Rust Belt's best chili
dog--the chance to reign one last time over greens, oil executives,
and Detroit automakers?

But this time around, things have been different--and in a way that
makes Dingell's blood boil. With global warming leading the news,
environmental activists have become bold and demanding. His own
caucus is shifting to their view. And a former adversary--a nerd
from green-conscious West Hollywood--is threatening to undermine
his empire.

A few weeks ago, a handful of lawmakers on the House energy
committee gathered with energy wonks at 101 Constitution
Avenue--Washington's glittering- white Taj Mahal of lobbying. The
public policy group sponsoring the meeting, the Keystone Center,
hosts mediation workshops, and the lawmakers had some toxic issues
to work out. Days earlier, Dingell had finally passed around a
draft of the committee's big energy-independence legislation, and
some of its provisions-- promoting coal, eliminating California's
tough car mileage standards--so surprised and incensed the
committee's second-ranked Democrat, environmental crusader Henry
Waxman, that his office launched a letter of protest. "We have
serious concerns about the direction the Committee is heading, "
read Waxman's mutinous pamphlet, which he convinced eleven fellow
Democrats to sign. Dingell, according to one signatory, was "not
pleased." By the time of the 101 Constitution meeting, committee
Democrats felt stuck in the middle. One hapless representative
explained, "'Well, most of us are trying to duck between Henry
Waxman and John Dingell,'" recalls Philip Sharp, an energy
consultant who served in the House in the 1980s. "And I just said,
'Been there, done that!'"

Dingell and Waxman's history of feuding dates back to 1982, right
after Dingell's Caesar-like rule over the energy committee began.
The hulking Pole is, according to a former colleague, "a truck. He
bulldozes into legislation." His staff and budget were the biggest
of any committee, and the only picture hanging in the committee
lounge was a satellite photo of the Earth: The joke was that it was
a depiction of his jurisdiction.

Waxman, the son of Jewish immigrant grocers from Los Angeles, joined
the committee when he arrived in the House in 1975. Five-foot-five,
gentle, and a bit rumpled, Waxman tended more toward "insert[ing]
himself into a room," says the former colleague. But, alarmed by
L.A.'s pollution, he audaciously took on Big John, squelching his
attempt to lower car-emissions standards. In return, Dingell
persistently smothered Waxman's efforts on acid rain. Their
standoff became a House legend. Committee member Ed Markey compared
it to a movie he had seen in which an 18-year-old
Japanese-American, interned in California, was asked whether he was
for the Japanese or the Americans. The boy had answered, "You don't
care who wins when your parents are fighting. You just want them to
stop."

But they didn't stop until 1989, when George H.W. Bush, who liked to
talk about the "need to awaken a new spirit of environmentalism
across America," was elected. "Until then, the issue had been,
'Will there be a [pollution] bill?'" recounts George Mitchell, then
the Senate's majority leader. "When [Bush] was elected, it became,
'What will be in the bill?'" Waxman entered negotiations in a
better position; Dingell worked feverishly to deliver industry
something it could live with. Both men take credit for the eventual
compromise, the 1990 Clean Air Act. Colleagues simply called it a
"miracle."

But, during the Republican years, changes came to the Hill that left
Dingell weakened. Newt Gingrich did away with the committee
fiefdoms that had given him free rein, setting a precedent of
centralizing power to the leadership. And global warming emerged as
a huge issue: This year, the environmental questionnaires
distributed to Democratic presidential candidates concentrate
chiefly on global warming. The Democratic leadership has jumped
right on board. In January, Nancy Pelosi tried to tiptoe around
Dingell by forming a special committee on global warming. Dingell
howled--snarking that such a committee would be "as useful as
feathers on a fish" and rounding up other committee chairmen to
help him defend his turf--and the committee's authority was
neutered. But Pelosi is still keeping him on a leash, ordering him
to finish a sweeping energy bill by July 4, a date he always
thought was unreasonable.

Meanwhile, Waxman's influence has grown. As the new head of the
Oversight and Government Reform Committee, his intense hearings
schedule and matter-of- fact dressing-downs of Bushie
ne'er-do-wells have made him an unlikely hero from the Hill to
YouTube. On climate, one alternative-energy activist breezily
explains that his colleagues conceive of Waxman as "essentially a
rival committee chair" to Dingell, an impression some of his House
colleagues seem to share. As Washington Representative Jay Inslee,
who signed Waxman's letter, tells me, "The planet is in meltdown
mode."

After a meeting with Pelosi last week, the two simply put off much
of what was supposed to be in the July 4 bill--including the
controversial coal and emissions provisions--until the fall. A
staffer passes on Waxman's feelings on the postponement: "I hope
our fights are behind us." But sitting with Dingell in his office a
day before they announced the compromise, the prospects for detente
sounded grim. "I work with everybody," Dingell says curtly when
asked about his relationship with Waxman.

But, by painting Dingell as a tyrant and mounting coups, the
green-minded may be hurting their own cause. Dingell likes to make
deals--he's fashioned successful ones, he reminds me, on
environmental issues ranging from ocean dumping to endangered
species. And, despite his open frustration, he is no lion in
winter, raging on a lonely throne while his court machinates around
him. He is still chairman, and his umbrage affects what the House
can accomplish. "I keep telling the environmental leaders, 'Don't
piss him off,'" says Sharp, almost pleadingly. "It doesn't serve
their interests."

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