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Detroit's bullying angel is set to fight

Longtime Democratic Rep. John Dingell digs in against his party's environmental agenda.

August 11, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — He is an old bull in a new china shop, the longest-serving member of the House working for a new generation of Democratic leaders.

And 81-year-old John D. Dingell isn't afraid to break the dishes, even if they crash down on his own party.

As the representative from Michigan's 15th District for more than 50 years, Dingell has been Detroit's archangel -- the closest thing the American automobile industry has to divine protection.

He is a master of parliamentary rules and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Dingell has so far stymied the environmental agenda set by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a key feature of her agenda to keep the House in Democratic hands.

One of Pelosi's first steps as speaker was the creation of a special committee on climate change, a move many saw as an end-run around the venerable Dingell. He insisted the new committee have no legislative power, and when Pelosi agreed, he tartly dismissed it as "about as useful as side pockets on a cow."

Pelosi also pledged the House would pass a bold "energy independence" bill by the Fourth of July to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and to lower carbon dioxide emissions. But that didn't happen. Instead, the House passed an energy bill last week without any new vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, a victory for Dingell that delays consideration until the House takes up a global warming bill in the fall, when he cheerfully predicts "a good, bare-knuckle fight."

If this were a tennis match, the score would be advantage Dingell.

"I've had to tell the speaker that there's a certain speed to legislation," Dingell said with a smile. "You don't get a baby in 4 1/2 months by getting two girls pregnant."

To those who have watched this showdown unfold during the last six months, the drama is classic Dingell.

With 14 years as chairman under his belt, Dingell is something of a legendary figure on Capitol Hill.

Lobbyists and staffers swap Dingell stories like treasured baseball cards.

The stories tend to illustrate the chairman's ability to prevail because he knows how the system works and has the stomach to use it.

"The rules are my sword and my shield," Dingell acknowledged in an interview with The Times in his office, the walls festooned with hunting trophies that seem to serve as a metaphor for his political victories.

W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman, likes to tell about an incident in the 1980s when he and other conservative Democrats on the energy committee marshaled the votes to deregulate the price of natural gas. After the committee convened, Tauzin asked to introduce his amendment. Dingell said he opposed it.

You may be opposed to it, Tauzin said, but I have the votes.

You may have the votes, said Dingell, but I have the gavel.

With that, Dingell recessed the committee and didn't reconvene it for months -- until he had swayed enough Republicans to defeat the idea.

"It was vintage, original John Dingell," recalled Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, now the ranking Republican on the committee. "It showed that, if you're committee chairman, you don't have to have the votes to win -- just the moral fortitude to stare people down."

Dingell was first elected in 1955 at 29, to succeed his recently deceased father, John David Dingell Sr., the first congressman to represent this district carved from Detroit's auto boom.

Dingell is Polish in background -- his grandfather changed the family name from Dzieglewicz -- and thinks it's part of what makes him a tough opponent.

His expertise as a congressional tactician comes from a knowledge honed in his half-century of service in the House of Representatives and, even before that, his deep ties to the Capitol. He was a House page from 1938 to 1943 while attending Georgetown Prep, and an elevator operator while at Georgetown University's law school.

"He has a tremendous respect for the House as an institution," said Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from a neighboring Michigan district.

No one has suffered -- or excelled -- more from Dingell's mastery of the rules than a fellow Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, who came to Congress in 1975 from a district that now includes Beverly Hills and Malibu. Waxman arrived with a good-government mission to clean up the smog obscuring Southern California's beauty. The two battled mightily -- the short, bell-shaped Waxman like a frustrated pugilist swinging at Big John.

Waxman tried to move on air pollution in 1983, but Dingell blocked him. He tried again in 1984. Same thing. And again in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988. Finally in 1989, Waxman won a subcommittee victory on controlling emissions from tailpipes. That broke the logjam. In 1990, Congress finally passed a Clean Air Act with teeth.

"Once we had the votes," recalled Waxman, who now chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Dingell "decided to negotiate."

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