HOUSE DEMOCRATS avoided a full-scale meltdown over their top domestic priority Monday when Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell to shelve most of an energy bill that amounted to a slag heap of special-interest favors for the auto, coal and utility industries.
But the compromise only delays an inevitable confrontation between Dingell, the chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, and the majority of House Democrats over energy independence and global warming. And it shouldn't stop Democrats from asking why a legislator so far from the party's mainstream on energy and the environment controls a chokepoint over its policies on those issues.
Dingell, who was first elected in 1955, is a canny legislator, dogged investigator and reliable Democratic vote on most issues. But his brazen challenge on energy -- driven by his lifelong determination to defend his state's auto industry -- harkened back to the breakdown in party cohesion that increasingly undermined House Democrats in the last years before they lost the majority in 1994. With party leaders unable to enforce discipline, committee chairmen frequently set their own course, and backbench members routinely opposed party priorities. The problem reached epidemic proportions during President Clinton's first two years, when alternating defections from liberals and conservatives produced an image of chaos that ultimately hurt all House Democrats.
One of the best weapons Democratic leaders had to discourage such dissension was the reform that liberals imposed in 1975 to elect House committee chairs, rather than automatically awarding the posts to the longest-serving members. Using the new rules, House Democrats quickly overthrew a few out-of-step chairs, but they gradually drifted back to reliance on seniority. That allowed even chairmen who defied the party on key issues -- as Dingell did by fighting clean-air legislation during the 1980s -- to maintain their positions.
When Republicans took control in 1995, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich dusted off and improved the old liberal playbook. First, Gingrich reached around the most senior member on three committees (Appropriations, Judiciary and Energy and Commerce) to pick chairs who would follow his direction. Then he imposed six-year term limits on all committee chairs.
Gingrich's changes replaced a culture of seniority with a culture of competition that awarded chairmanships to legislators who most reliably supported the leadership. Republicans carried the system to excess by systematically denying chairmanships to moderates and punishing almost any independent thinking. But overall, Gingrich's approach helped Republicans consistently move their agenda through the House despite persistently narrow majorities.
When Democrats regained control after the 2006 elections, they insisted they had learned from Republican techniques. But they blinked at the toughest step. Pelosi, ruffling senior Democrats, maintained Gingrich's term limits for chairmen. But she reverted to a seniority system in naming the chairman of every permanent House committee.
Pelosi's allies say that decision was justified because the chairmen-in-waiting had worked so hard to help recapture the majority. But Dingell's insurrection on the energy bill shows the risks in that course.
With Congress' approval rating plummeting amid stalemate over Iraq, many Democrats believe that legislation to improve fuel economy and to promote renewable energy offers their best chance this year for an important legislative achievement. Instead, Dingell produced an energy bill engineered so precisely to the specifications of the U.S. auto companies that it should have come with tail fins.
The compromise announced Monday would force Dingell to drop his most egregious proposals, which aimed to preempt efforts underway in California and the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars. But in return, the bill would abandon proposals to require tougher fuel economy for cars and trucks.
Overall, the deal is a victory for Pelosi, but it won't be the last word on either issue. Dingell says he plans to revive his preemption proposals if the House considers global warming legislation this fall. And he looms as an enduring obstacle if other Democrats later try to add tougher fuel efficiency requirements, either on the House floor or when the House bill is melded in a conference committee with the energy legislation the Senate is debating.
Dingell sincerely believes that in fighting tougher fuel economy and pollution standards, he is protecting his autoworker constituents. He's wrong. Detroit would be more competitive today if Washington had required years ago that it produce more fuel-efficient cars. But at nearly 81, Dingell's not going to experience a green conversion. Which is why Pelosi will have no one to blame but herself if she fails to learn from this confrontation with the most venerable of the House's "old bulls."
If Pelosi wants to run with the bulls -- and not get trampled by them -- she needs to take a lesson from Gingrich and send a clear message that loyalty, not longevity, will determine who holds the gavels in her House.