John Dingell and the coming Congress

Democratic Rep. John Dingell has served in the House of Representatives for more than 50 years, including 14 years (1981-1994) as the omnipotent chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations he also chaired. If Democrats gain 15 seats in the midterm election next month, Mr. Dingell will reclaim the gavel at the committee whose boundaries his staff once outlined by hanging a picture of the Earth in the committee office. The mounted heads of the wild game Mr. Dingell has killed hang in his office in the Rayburn House Building. Other Dingell-nailed big game include a senior official at a federal agency and a high-level White House staffer, both of whom were convicted of perjury after testifying before Mr. Dingell’s oversight subcommittee.

Having played a major role in the creation of Medicare more than 40 years ago, Mr. Dingell hinted at his future priorities as chairman by telling CQ Weekly how he would address the Medicare prescription-drug plan, which was narrowly passed by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2003. Indicating he would revive his oversight powers by investigating the role that drug companies played in writing the Medicare prescription law, Mr. Dingell said with a broad grin: “I might have to take a look at how this evil creature was born and look back at its parentage.”

Even if House Democrats capture a majority next month, they understand that a presidential veto would strictly limit their legislative powers during the next Congress. That is why they would exercise their considerable oversight powers so relentlessly. Armed with the power to issue subpoenas to executive-branch officials for the first time in a dozen years, House Democrats would promptly paper the executive branch with so many subpoenas that key administration officials will be so busy preparing for testimony that they will not be able to do their jobs. Rep. Ike Skelton, the moderate Missouri Democrat who voted to authorize force against Iraq four years ago and who would become chairman of the Armed Services Committee, recently gave the National Journal a three-word description of his priorities: “Oversight, oversight, oversight!”

If the White House and the Pentagon aren’t overly worried about the scrutiny from Mr. Skelton, they might consider who would chair the military-oversight subcommittee of the House’s principal oversight panel, the Government Reform Committee. Heading the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats & International Relations would be none other than Out of Iraq Caucus member Dennis Kucinich.

California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, who fiercely chaired the Health and Environment Subcommittee under Mr. Dingell’s Energy and Commerce Committee, would become the chairman of the Government Reform Committee. It is safe to say that Mr. Waxman, who has spent the last several years scolding his committee’s Republican majority for failing to hold hearings on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the no-bid Iraq contracts awarded to Halliburton (Vice President Cheney’s former firm), would not be so reticent. Mr. Waxman, an ex-smoker to whom tobacco company executives famously testified under oath that nicotine was not addictive, would undoubtedly reconvene tobacco hearings to inquire about recent charges that cigarette companies have been secretly raising the nicotine levels of their products.

If Mr. Dingell thinks the Earth represents his regulatory portfolio at Energy and Commerce, Mr. Waxman recently remarked that his committee “has oversight over everything that the government is involved with.” He has also complained that “we’ve had an imperial presidency and a subservient Congress for the last five years.”

The White House and the rest of the executive branch can expect Messrs. Waxman and Dingell to try to reverse a trend that Mr. Waxman has described as “the lack of oversight from Congress [which] sends a message to the executive branch that there will be no accountability.”

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