Longtime Foes Cleared Air for Clean Air Act : Congress: A 10-year House fight ended after Reps. Waxman and Dingell finally agreed to compromise.


Although House approval of the Clean Air Act came this week, the critical moment in ending a 10-year stalemate on the bill occurred last fall when Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.)--adversaries in one of Congress’ longest-running battles--found common ground.

Waxman, an environmental champion, had crafted a compromise on the thorniest issue: tighter controls on smog-producing tailpipe emissions. But Dingell, powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and chief defender of the auto industry, was skeptical.

As the wary antagonists, two colleagues and several aides met behind closed doors last October, Waxman methodically explained to Dingell that each of his objections to earlier versions of the proposal had been met. Finally, the chairman sat back in his chair.


“Well, Henry, you might have something I can support,” Dingell said.

The resulting agreement proved to be the linchpin in a sweeping measure approved overwhelmingly by the House Wednesday. A similar bill cleared the Senate on April 3, and representatives of each chamber must now resolve differences before sending a final bill to President Bush.

The agreement, hailed as a historic breakthrough, virtually assured the first overhaul of the Clean Air Act in 13 years, although specific provisions remained unresolved until final passage on Wednesday.

The accommodation was considered so unlikely that one Energy and Commerce Committee member said that seeing Dingell and Waxman in the same room to announce it proved that “the Earth had moved.”

One potential sticking point is a House provision allocating $250 million for workers who lose their jobs because of industry efforts to reduce emissions.

Bush threatened to veto the measure if the provision remains intact, but a compromise on a lesser amount appears likely.

For Waxman, passage of the Clean Air overhaul was the culmination of a decade of efforts to reduce sources of urban smog, industrial toxic chemicals and acid rain.

In the process, he saw the issue come full circle from the early 1980s when he helped block attempts by the Reagan Administration to significantly weaken the Clean Air Act.

“No single member of Congress deserves more credit for a strong Clean Air law than Henry Waxman,” said Daniel Weiss, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “He’s the breathers’ greatest ally and the big polluters’ worst enemy.”

Auto makers and industry groups, on the other hand, have asserted that Waxman’s efforts will result in staggering new costs borne by business, and, ultimately, consumers.

Waxman was only one of many key players involved in passing the enormously complex measure that is considered perhaps the most far-reaching legislation Congress will adopt this session.

In fact, he and Dingell, whose district includes the Big Three auto makers, remained the pivotal holdovers in a changing cast of those who shaped the measure.

Most prominent among the new players was George Bush, the avowed “environmental President.” Early in his presidency, he cited a tougher Clean Air Act as a priority and introduced his own proposal to get the process moving.

Also vital was Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), who was elected Senate majority leader in 1988.

Mitchell, an environmentalist whose home state’s lakes and forests have been depleted by acid rain, succeeded Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose constituency includes the pollution-producing coal industry.

“The credit for Clean Air moving to become law this year goes more to President Bush and Majority Leader Mitchell than anyone else,” Waxman said. “They certainly made it possible to get this Clean Air bill out of the logjam it had been in for so many years. I hope my contribution has been to make it a better bill, stronger environmentally.”

Waxman, 50, a liberal lawmaker whose low-key style belies his tenacity, has been involved in the clean air issue almost since he arrived in Congress in 1974.

He joined the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and environment as the debate began on the first reauthorization of the 1970 act in 1975.

This culminated with the last revision in 1977.

The issue was a natural for Waxman, given his Hollywood-based district in the heart of smog-bound Los Angeles as well as his interest in health care as chairman of the California Assembly Health Committee.

Since winning an upset victory to become chairman of the congressional subcommittee in 1979, he has repeatedly left his mark on major health and environmental legislation.

No cause has occupied more of Waxman’s time and energy than clean air.

Since 1981, his subcommittee has held 78 hearings on the topic and heard more than 700 witnesses, said Phil Schiliro, Waxman’s administrative assistant.

In 1981 and 1982 alone, when Reagan and Dingell joined forces to try to loosen controls on airborne emissions, Waxman held 30 hearings.

“Over the years, Henry has slowly but surely weaned people off the one side of the issue and over to the other,” said Jim Florio, a longtime Democratic member of the Energy and Commerce Committee prior to his election as governor of New Jersey last year.

“He’s done it by talking to people, finding out what their concerns were, attempting to make modifications where there was no loss of principle, working at the margins. . . . Henry is a coalition builder.”

With Bush and Mitchell on board, Waxman entered the negotiations in 1989 with new-found confidence that he could beat Dingell on the House floor.

But first he had to move his proposals through his own subcommittee and Dingell’s full committee.

Moreover, when the House and Senate members reconcile differences in the bills passed by each chamber, the House representatives will be Dingell appointees.

Waxman said his deal with Dingell gives each lawmaker veto power over the conference actions.

These political dynamics set the stage for the compromise, which will extend California’s tough new auto emissions standards to the rest of the country over a two-year period starting in 1994.

By 1996, the changes are expected to reduce emissions by as much as 60%.

Another 50% cut in the remaining level of emissions will be required by 2006 if the Environmental Protection Agency decides it is needed and technologically feasible.

By this week, nine months of intense negotiations and lobbying had taken their toll on Waxman’s staff members, some of whom have worked through weekends for the past two months. Said a hoarse Schiliro: “We’re running on fumes.”

Waxman, meanwhile, was already casting an eye toward his next potential landmark battle.

Asked what he will do for an encore, the lawmaker replied, “National health insurance.”