Climate crusader. Henry Waxman (D-CA), a strong advocate of climate legislation, will lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2009.

U.S. House of Representatives

The Waxman Cometh

In a vote that shocked Washington insiders, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives today dethroned their most senior member, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), and chose Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The surprising vote is expected to strengthen the hand of President-elect Barack Obama in next year's debate over setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Dingell has served in the House since 1954 and has been committee chair or ranking minority member of the energy and commerce panel since 1981. His loss to Waxman, by a margin of 137 to 122 in a secret ballot, represents a repudiation of a long-standing tradition of maintaining committee chairmanships based on seniority. Waxman, currently chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is hardly a novice, having been elected in 1974. And he's second to Dingell in service on the commerce panel.

The committee will be the main venue in the House for climate change legislation. Waxman has taken a much tougher stance on the issue than has Dingell, a fierce advocate for the auto industry in his state. Although Dingell has called for more flexibility for industry and less aggressive timetables than the President-elect, Waxman would match Obama's call for a 80% cut from 1990 levels by 2050.

Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) says he supported Waxman because of his leadership on global warming, energy, and ocean acidification. "I think Henry will be a stronger leader on [the climate] issue," he said. "It was a tough vote. You've got two people who have served their country well."

Climate scientists say the vote augurs well for meaningful legislation in the next Congress. "It's a sea change," says climate scientist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, adding that "they replaced seniority with 21st century thinking instead of 19th century protectionism for the auto industry." Schneider also calls Waxman "a straight shooter" for the way he has incorporated climate science into previous legislation on climate science.

But Schneider warns that lawmakers hoping to pass a climate change bill need the support of moderate lawmakers from states that produce coal as well as from liberals like Waxman. "This ain't a done deal, but it's an admission that times have changed," he says.