CongressNow: Dingell to Take On Global Warming

Posted August 27, 2008 at 5:09pm

On Valentine’s Day of next year, Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D) will be poised to add another accomplishment to his legislative career when he surpasses the late Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) to become the longest-serving Member in House history.

While some might consider such a milestone to be a crowning achievement, the 82-year-old dean of the House is busy looking ahead to what he calls the greatest challenge of his 53 years in Congress — tackling global warming.

“The drafting of these things is like giving birth to sextuplets,” he said in an interview earlier this month.

At an age when most people would be well-ensconced in retirement, Dingell is running for re-election and writing the global warming bill, a draft of which could be unveiled next month. “Big John,” as he’s long been known, may be seen maneuvering around the Capitol complex on crutches these days — the result of a pinched nerve — but he’s as sharp as ever. Just ask any government witness who dares to answer a call to testify before Dingell’s Energy and Commerce Committee, or any Republican who engages him in debate.

Dingell’s continued enthusiasm for the daily legislative skirmishing was on display in July, when he raised eyebrows by lecturing Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) about the dangers of his smoking habit during a floor debate over regulating tobacco.

“This legislation is on the floor because people are killing themselves by smoking these evil cigarettes,” Dingell said. “And the distinguished gentleman, the Minority Leader, is going to be among the next to die.”

While everyone agrees that Dingell is up to the task, the sheer complexity of climate change — and legislation to curb it — will require him to muster every bit of legislative skill he’s acquired during his lengthy tenure representing Michigan’s 15th Congressional district, which abuts Detroit.

Indeed, there may be no lawmaker better suited to the challenge than Dingell. His command of parliamentary procedure is legendary, and he’s amassed a deep reservoir of respect as a policymaker among Democrats and Republicans alike, a reality that has allowed him to advance even the most controversial bills through the process.

The climate bill he’s writing would likely seek to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent by 2050, which would require deep reductions across virtually the entire U.S. economy. The cuts would come from a previously untested national cap-and-trade program, under which the government would set annual emission levels of greenhouse gases and issue pollution permits that could be traded or sold by companies to meet the limits. The cap would be tightened over time.

Many economists believe that cap-and-trade can achieve the necessary reductions, but they also agree the plan will come with a big price tag — costs that are expected to be passed on to ordinary Americans in the form of higher energy bills. While many Democrats and environmentalists talk up the “greening” of the economy that would accompany cap-and-trade, such as new markets for clean energy generation, Dingell has been candid about the economic costs throughout the 110th Congress.

“I’ve been trying to warn everybody there’s going to be a huge cost increase, and I’ve gotten a rich flow of denunciation for that,” he said. “Let’s be honest, cap-and-trade is going to result in a very significant increase in energy prices.”

That makes the plan a tough sell to an American public already troubled by $4-a-gallon gasoline. In June, GOP Senators seized on the economic costs to kill a cap-and-trade bill on the Senate floor, and Dingell acknowledges that House Republicans thus far are “not real enthusiastic” about the plan.

But convincing skeptical Republicans to go along with the scheme is just one of the many challenges Dingell faces in shepherding the bill to the president’s desk — whoever that president may be by the time it gets there. He also must overcome internal divisions in the House Democratic Caucus, including a strained relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The differences with Pelosi date back at least to 2002, when the future Speaker endorsed Dingell’s opponent, Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich), in a primary fight after redistricting pitted the two incumbents against one another.

Tensions erupted early in 2007, when the newly installed Speaker announced that she was creating a special committee to address global warming. The famously turf-conscious Dingell memorably labeled the panel “as useful as feathers on a fish” and successfully pressed to have it stripped of any legislative authority. The two clashed again last summer, when Dingell released draft legislation that would block Pelosi’s home state of California from regulating greenhouse gases from automobiles, the mainstay industry of Dingell’s district.

However, they were able to set aside their differences and negotiate a compromise energy bill that resulted in the first Congressionally mandated increase in federal fuel economy standards in three decades. Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, said the Speaker looks forward to working with Dingell on global warming in the next Congress, when the serious legislative push will occur.

In the meantime, Dingell also must juggle competing pressures from coal-state Democrats whose blue-collar districts would likely suffer under cap-and-trade, and from senior Members such as Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), both of whom have close ties to Pelosi and are pressing more aggressive climate policies than the more centrist Dingell.

“There are 435 viewpoints on this matter,” Dingell said of the balancing act he faces.

Pressure from environmental groups worried about his long-standing link to Detroit automakers poses another hurdle. While Dingell played a key role in passage of the Endangered Species Act and the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, and while he boasts a solid lifetime environmental rating of 72 by the League of Conservation Voters, some environmentalists fear that the transportation sector, a big source of greenhouse gases, could get a pass under a Dingell- designed cap-and-trade plan.

Critics also note that Dingell’s wife, Debbie, herself a force in Michigan politics, has worked at General Motors for more than 30 years. In an interview, Debbie Dingell said her minor role as a lobbyist for the company ended before they were married 28 years ago. She is currently the executive director of public affairs and community relations for GM, and a vice chairman of the charitable General Motors Foundation.

To highlight his links to the auto industry, the liberal group MoveOn.org last year ran radio ads in Michigan labeling the Congressman a “Dingellsaurus” who was blocking global warming efforts, while the environmental group Greenpeace staged a protest in which it turned his Ypsilanti office into a used car lot. Dingell responded by issuing a statement welcoming “out-of-state” Greenpeace activists to his district, and distributed gift baskets featuring Michigan products.

Kate Smolski, of Greenpeace’s global warming campaign, acknowledged that Dingell has done good things for the environment, but added that the group’s protests were intended to serve as a reminder of “the problem of global warming and his role in addressing it.”

“There is no time for half-measures when it comes to global warming policies,” she said.

As for Dingell, he’s readying a draft bill that will serve as a marker for the next Congress, when expected Democratic gains in the House and Senate and a new occupant in the White House could smooth the path for a climate bill. Both Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) have spoken of the importance of curbing global warming, though their policy prescriptions are expected to differ.

Despite the outlook for a more favorable political climate, Dingell, in an interview, was characteristically candid about how he gauges the odds of success on global warming legislation during the next Congress. “I don’t have the vaguest idea,” he said. “I can only say that traditionally, that kind of legislation has only passed when it’s been done in a bipartisan fashion.”