Dingell Was Detroit's Best Friend -- Or Was He?

Washington Matters

Dingell Was Detroit's Best Friend -- Or Was He?

It seems to be the worst of times and the worst of times for the big three U.S. automakers. Not only are they teetering on bankruptcy and unable to persuade a reluctant congress to extend a lifeline, they've just lost a good deal of clout in the defeat today of their greatest protector and defender on Capitol Hill, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who was dethroned by his caucus as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. But in the end, was Dingell really what Detroit needed all these years?

Dingell, the longest serving sitting member of the House, has been legendary in Congress for decades for his unapologetic protection of automakers from what he saw as burdensome environmental regulations, such as for fuel efficiency standards, pollution controls and safety requirements.

Any rule that was applied to Detroit went into effect only after pitched battle with Dingell, who either chaired or was ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee since 1981 and has served in Congress since 1956. Dingell was also aided by others from the Michigan delegation, including both Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Democratic Reps. Sander Levin and John Conyers. But the heavy lifting for big auto was always by Dingell.

While he'll continue to have a voice on the committee, the days of ultimate influence for the 82-year old lawmaker are over, and Detroit will notice it. His replacement, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a long-time rival who is closely aligned with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also of California, is an avowed environmentalist who will push an environmental agenda, even though it comes at a cost to industry. With Waxman wielding the gavel, Detroit can now plan on more mandates, as can any other company with a factory that emits greenhouse gasses. Waxman is also more closely aligned with the climate change priorities of President-elect Barack Obama.


But while Dingell's demotion is a big blow to carmakers just when they need influence the most, it's reasonable to ask whether Dingell might have hurt the industry over the years as much as he helped. Making fuel efficiency changes now, for example, is going to be a lot more expensive than it would have been a decade ago. And maybe if it had been done earlier, American automakers would be more competitive with their overseas rivals than they are today. That's not to blame their current woes on the kinds of cars they make -- the industry is clearly a victim of the economic tsunami hitting the U.S. But with changes earlier -- changes that Dingell helped ward off -- Detroit might be in a better position today to handle those problems.