Auto industry's future at issue as House Speaker Pelosi and Mich.'s Dingell
clash over who leads energy, climate reform
If you don't think all politics are local, ask Rep. John Dingell.
The Dearborn Democrat, dean of the House, is battling an assault by Speaker
Nancy Pelosi on his power, the Energy and Commerce Committee he again heads
and the industry he's spent 50 years in Congress defending. This from the
speaker he swore in with great fanfare little more than two weeks ago.
Harry Truman had it right: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
Convinced legislation to ostensibly curb global warming and America's
addiction to oil are key to Democrats retaining power in 2008, Pelosi
Thursday announced creation of a Select Committee on Energy Independence and
Global Warming -- two issues, clearly in Dingell's bailiwick, that could
have profound effects on any automaker selling cars and trucks in the United
"We already have many of the techniques that we need to reduce global
warming pollution, and American ingenuity will supply the rest," Pelosi said
in a statement, calling the impact of global warming "overwhelming and
Predictably, Detroit's automakers are lining up behind Dingell, who outlined
his own plans for climate change hearings in a memo dated Wednesday. They
worry Pelosi's panel, described by her as having no "legislative
jurisdiction," still would frame the public debate and influence new energy
legislation by the July 4 holiday that might do more harm than good for
companies fighting to get off their backs.
"Our best bet to have a sane climate change proposal is to have John Dingell
there," a ranking Detroit auto executive close to the situation tells me.
"Not because he's pro-auto, but because he's fair. He'll have everybody from
Al Gore to right-wing Republicans there" to testify on potential
Detroit's automakers no longer even debate whether global warming or climate
change or greenhouse gas emissions are a problem (they'll tell you they are)
or whether they will get some kind of political answer in this Congress
(they'll tell you they will).
They acknowledge that the success of rival Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius
hybrids show the benefit of being green. They're moving quickly to close the
gap with hybrid SUVs, and GM is touting a plug-in hybrid concept, the Chevy
Volt. They hear the complaints of lawmakers who want an American-brand
hybrid, but find few options.
They understand the hypocrisy of rhetorically backing energy independence
even as they show, by their dismal financial results, how utterly reliant
their U.S. businesses still are on gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs.
Which is why, after taking a brutal beating with $3-a-gallon gas and
plunging truck sales, they are eager to offset their relief that gas is now
below $2 a gallon with calls to push development of battery technology and
And Metaldyne Corp. Chairman Tim Leuliette used an industry conference to
call for higher federal gas taxes that would adjust as oil prices change.
The goal is to keep prices as high as $5 a gallon to force the transition to
a hydrogen infrastructure.
"Gasoline is too cheap in America," Leuliette said. "When fuel prices are
low, there is little interest on Wall Street, Main Street or 1600
Fair enough. The question for Detroit, as well as rivals based in Germany
and Japan, is who will influence the process that produces likely
legislation. Will it be Dingell and lawmakers from auto-producing states? Or
will it be an ad hoc coalition of coastal Democrats from California, New
York and Massachusetts whose constituents wouldn't bear the brunt of change?
For Detroit's automakers and, especially, the United Auto Workers who
enthusiastically greeted the return of Democrats to power, those aren't
arcane political questions with little meaning.
The party that controls the House and Senate is less important to the
Washington policy issues facing the auto industry than where the players are
from. With the exception of New York's Sen. Hillary Clinton, a growing
number of Democrats and many Republicans show scant interest in what ails
Detroit or how new policy could affect it.
Republicans from Alaska, swimming in oil, are allying with coastal Democrats
in proposing increases in federal fuel economy rules. For red-state
Republicans with Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai plants, Detroit's automakers
aren't creating jobs -- the foreign-owned companies are.
That's what ol' Dingell is up against. It's not easy -- even for the lion of
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is
marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and
comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great
devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause. Who at the best, knows the
triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least
fails while daring greatly.
T.R. April 10, 1899