For a generation, Michigan Congressman John Dingell has been the U.S. auto industry''s most effective advocate in government and the sharpest critic of air regulation that could threaten the industry''s perceived interests. He also has been a fierce investigator, whose staff is feared by anybody who has the misfortune to drift into its target sights. But in the new Congress, California Congressman Henry Waxman--the most effective advocate of stronger air regulation in government--unseated Dingell as chairman of the key committee handling energy and the environment. It was a controversial breach of normal congressional etiquette that went down poorly even among some Waxman allies, including Congressman Barney Frank, who has emerged as the Democrats'' pointman in all matters pertaining to the global financial crisis.
In my blog post yesterday, I drew attention to Obama''s instructions to sharply tighten auto fuel efficiency standards, and to the immense technical challenge those instructions represent for the deeply troubled U.S. auto industry. In a New York Times article expanding on that theme today, David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., is quoted as saying that adoption of the California standards ''would basically kill the industry.'' Erich Merkle, an independent automotive analyst in Grand Rapids, Mich., predicts that there will be ''consumer outrage with the fact that they''re limited to maybe two vehicles and there''s nothing there that would meet their family''s needs.''
But listen to the new Dingell, as quoted in the same article: ''President Obama and I both share the goal of energy independence and a cleaner environment for our children and grandchildren. We have a unique opportunity in history to address the issue of global climate change and we must take bold and balanced action.'' Having said that, Dingell expressed hope that Obama would not let a patchwork of national air regulation develop--decoded, that means Dingell hopes Obama will not let California set national fuel efficiency standards.
Don''t count Dingell and his Midwestern political allies out. As another article in today''s New York Times points out, representatives of the two coasts have been tending to set the climate agenda, but coal-burning states in the Midwest and Southwest will be most adversely affected by any attempt to set a price on carbon (whether by cap-and-trade or a tax). Representatives of those states in Congress formed a Gang of 10 last year, which subsequently expanded to 16 and now has dropped back to 15, with the entry of one member into Obama''s Cabinet (as Secretary of the Interior).
Dingell is a warhorse highly experienced in political combat. Even without his committee chairmanship, he will have a big influence on whatever climate and energy independence plans are adopted.