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A History of the House Energy & Commerce Committee

By Dr. Norman Ornstein

The power of Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce-the “commerce clause” of the Constitution–is at the very core of Congress’s role and responsibility in the American political system. It is, thus, not surprising that the House Energy and Commerce Committee became one of the first standing committees created in Congress in 1795. It stands today as the oldest continuous standing committee in the House and as a committee which is at the crossroads of almost every significant policy area that Congress considers, from the economy and health care to telecommunication, transportation, energy and the environment.

Over 200 years, the committee has changed frequently, in its name, its powers and its jurisdictions. It has been known variously as the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures, the Committee on Commerce, the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and coming almost full circle, once again the Committee on Commerce and the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Its powers have waxed and waned, along with its prestige. It frequently has been subject to attack from reformers trying to curtail its power, remove aspects of its jurisdiction, spread some of its considerable goodies to other panels and other lawmakers. (I confess that I have made such recommendations from time to time myself.) But just as it started out as a committee at the core of Congress’s power, it remains so today–as powerful, wide-ranging and prestigious as any panel in either house of Congress. And along the way, its legacy includes some of the most far-reaching laws across the entire range of policy areas in the history of the country.To think about the House Energy and Commerce Committee means to think about the origins of policy on public health, including the creation and expansion of the Public Health Service and the National Institutes of Health, and more recently, the expansion and enhancement of health care to the needy and disadvantaged through Medicaid, and the establishment of a modern, wide-ranging health research program. (Now, of course, it also means finding ways to curtail the programs the committee earlier had built.)

The Energy and Commerce Committee also is linked directly to the creation of a comprehensive regulatory apparatus to handle transportation, from railroads to shipping, trucking and aviation, from the Interstate Commerce Commission in the 1880s to the Civil Aeronautics Board in the 1930s to the FAA in the 1950s and on through the deregulation of transportation in the 1970s. The committee shaped the Communications Act of 1934, and telecommunications policy through the landmark reform bill of 1996; shaped the major securities act in the early 1930s and worked on comprehensive securities reform in the 1990s in a vastly different global economic and technological environment; and crafted the major legislation in the twentieth century on energy, the environment (including the Clean Air Act), consumer protection and, from the early 1960s on, focused on the health hazards of tobacco. It is hard to find an area in citizens’ lives that has not been affected by the actions of this important panel.

Rayburn Era

As with every committee, Energy and Commerce’s activism and output have ebbed and flowed over two hundred years, influenced by the times and the nature of committee and House leadership. There have been two prime areas of committee influence and power–what we could call the Samuel Rayburn era and the John Dingell era. If other chairmen were notable for their longevity and influence, including in modern times Oren Harris and Harley Staggers, no chairs have had the impact on the nation’s policy or the imprint on the House of Sam Rayburn and John Dingell. By the force of their personalities, the power of their ideas and the passion behind their commitments to their points of view, they both influenced the government’s structure and direction, and national policies in ways few legislators have matched. Rayburn chaired the committee from 1931 through 1936–including, of course, the dramatic period during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term that led to the creation of the modern regulatory state. FDR was the driving force, but Rayburn’s own populist commitment made a major difference, and turned the committee from a relatively minor one during the decade before his chairmanship into a forum for policy revolution. His activist chairmanship led to his election as Speaker of thc House.

Dingell Era

Dingell took the committee’s reins with the ascendancy of another powerful and consequential president, but of the opposite party and with a very different world view–Ronald Reagan. Also in contrast with Rayburn, the climate in the House was more democratized and decentralized and less oriented to committee authority. Nevertheless, Dingell managed, through the Reagan years and beyond, to become one of the most powerful committee chairs in the history of the House, even as the power on the committee devolved to such active subcommittee chairs as Henry Waxman, Jim Florio, Phil Sharp, and later, Ed Markey and A1 Swift, and even though he did not always see eye to eye with his subcommittee colleagues.

Force of personality, intellect, drive and savvy, not to mention the ability to inject fear in one’s colleagues and adversaries, all combine to make leaders powerful. Dingell also was fiercely protective of the committee’s reputation and jurisdiction, and expansive, to say the least, in his territorial objectives. He “claims jurisdiction over anything that moves, burns or is sold,” the National Journal noted with some understatement a few years ago. As Dingell’s reputation grew, so did the attractiveness of the committee; in recent years, it has surpassed that of any other House panel with the possible exceptions of Ways and Means and Appropriations.

A New House

The House itself was dramatically transformed by the 1994 elections, bringing in the first Republican majority in forty years. That meant a new chairman of the committee, Tom Bliley of Virginia, but it also meant a transformation of the committee itself. The name was changed, from Committee on Energy and Commerce to Committee on Commerce. There were some jurisdictional changes, as the committee gave up jurisdiction over railroads and inland waterways. Tom Bliley’s personal style was dramatically different from his predecessor’s, but Bliley’s personal relationship with John Dingell was a strong one, and the committee managed to navigate through a highly partisan era in the House while still managing frequently to build legislative accomplishments in a bipartisan fashion, including the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, and sweeping securities reform in the same Congress. Those bills, among others, underscored the importance, sweep and power of the committee across political eras. After 1995, the appeal of the committee to the members of the House was apparent in the steady drive to expand its size to accommodate demand. In 1992, the committee had 43 members. By 2000, it was up to S3 members.

Yet another era began in 2001, with Tom Bliley’s retirement and the ascendance to the committee’s chairmanship of Billy Tauzin of Louisiana. Hard-charging, opinionated and energetic, Tauzin suggested a return to the high profile style of leadership of the Dingell era. While the House continued to be ruled by Republicans in the 107th Congress, change, not continuity, was the watchword on the committee. The committee grew to 57 members. The name changed again–back to Energy and Commerce–as jurisdiction shifted again. As the House Republicans moved to create a powerful new Financial Services Committee, Commerce gave to it jurisdiction over securities regulation. As a consequence, the subcommittees were reorganized. Among other things, what had been Finance and Hazardous Materials became Environment and Hazardous Materials, when jurisdiction over the environment was shifted from the health subcommittee. Trade and consumer protection moved to a new subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection; it had previously been with telecommunications, which became Telecommunications and the Internet.

Any suggestion that the loss of jurisdiction would diminish the impact of the committee was allayed early on in the 107th Congress. The energy crisis in California, followed by the Enron and Arthur Andersen debacles, moved the Energy and Commerce Committee to center stage, familiar ground for it whether under Democrats or Republicans.

 

This history is an extension of remarks presented by Dr. Norman Ornstein on the occasion of the Society’s dinner honoring the House Commerce Committee in 1995.