Rep. Waxman pivotal figure in global-warming committee

The ease with which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is able to pass legislation creating a temporary select committee on energy policy hinges on Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

If the second-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sides with the chairman of the committee, John Dingell (D-Mich.), on the issue, it could make winning a floor vote tougher for Pelosi. By aligning himself with Dingell, Waxman would signal to fellow Democrats that the dispute centers on jurisdiction — rather than climate change and energy policy — making it easier for them to oppose Pelosi. 

By supporting Pelosi’s proposal, Waxman could isolate Dingell. The vote would then be seen as a matter of policy rather than process, Democratic committee aides said.

A senior Democratic lawmaker suggested that the latter scenario is more likely, because it would allow Waxman to sidestep a snare in his West Hollywood congressional district where high-profile celebrities and activists, such as comedian Larry David’s wife, Laurie, lives. 

Although Waxman initially criticized Pelosi’s decision, he since has staked out a middle ground where he is staying. For now. He still says the Energy and Commerce Committee should do “the work [on global warming], but I can see why [Pelosi] sees the merits of a panel as a messaging entity.” He added that he expected a vote to take place in February.

The recriminations between Dingell and Pelosi have died down in recent days. There were no official meetings this week to discuss the issue; Dingell extended an olive branch to Pelosi yesterday in the form of an invitation to the Washington Auto Show.  

One committee member said the “initial agitation” was caused by Pelosi’s surprise announcement.

“As long as everyone keeps their word, we’ll be fine,” he said.

Testy jurisdictional battles over energy policy and the creation of a temporary committee to manage energy policy are nothing new.

“Reforming jurisdiction is always a matter of whose ox is being gored,” a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, Norman Ornstein, said. “Creating a permanent committee means someone is going to lose jurisdiction, and that’s like losing a child.”

In 1974, then-Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) proposed a series of changes, including the creation a new energy committee. At the time, scores of committees had oversight of energy policy.

Ex-Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), Pelosi’s political mentor, helped kill that proposal to curry favor with committee chairmen he hoped would support him in a race against Bolling and former Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) to become majority leader, according to Ornstein. Wright won.

In 1978, then-Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.) created the Ad Hoc Select Committee on Energy Policy, 27 Democrats and 13 Republicans, to manage President Carter’s energy package. The model worked because committee chairmen were allowed to craft legislation and manage their parts of the bill on the floor. The Ad Hoc panel pulled the various pieces into a comprehensive plan. The resulting legislation implemented the first federal gasoline tax, among other policies, according to congressional testimony in 2003 from Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Climate change and global warming quickly have become central issues in the 110th Congress. Not only has President Bush proposed cutting gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years, but when freshman lawmakers attended their orientation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in December they were treated to two panels on energy and the environment, according to a schedule provided by David King, a political scientist at the Kennedy School who ran the program.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), ex-Rep. Phil Sharp (D-Ind.) and former Deputy Energy Secretary Linda Stuntz moderated a panel on energy and national security.

They also listened to a discussion, “How the Global Environment Impacts America,” led by an MIT scientist, Ronald Prinn; a Harvard professor, Robert Stavins, who is considered the father of tradable emissions permits; and a Harvard Law School professor, Jody Freeman.