Rep. John Dingell (D) might seem like the last guy to want a big new tax aimed squarely at Americans' gas guzzlers. For more than 50 years in Congress, he's represented southeastern Michigan – home to thousands of US auto workers.
But the Democrats' "dean of the House" is calling for a whopping tax on gasoline and other emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that scientists say causes global warming. Whether he really believes that's the way to address climate change – not to mention keeping his seat in Congress – is another matter.
Representative Dingell admits he's proposing a carbon tax just to prove that Americans don't really want to make big changes in their energy-rich lifestyle. Asked last weekend in a C-SPAN interview whether people would be willing to pay higher prices because of energy legislation, Dingell said he doubted "that the American people are willing to pay what this is really going to cost them."
"I will be introducing in the next little bit a carbon tax bill, just to sort of see how people really feel about this. And it will impose, for example, on gasoline a 50-cent tax. It also will place a very substantial tax on CO2 emissions, amounting to a double-digit tax on tons of CO2 emitted. And I think, when you see the criticism I get, you'll understand that you will be getting the answer to your question."
Dingell's carbon tax proposal – whether faux or sincere – has got the blogosphere humming.
Writing on the liberal website TomPaine.com, Bill Scher, online editor for Campaign for America's Future, notes that Dingell has been sending mixed messages about his intentions on global warming:
"It's been unclear if that's because his views were evolving in a positive direction, or he's trying to keep environmental critics off-balance.... If the only guy bringing up a carbon tax is explicitly doing it disingenuously, it is more likely to fizzle out than spark intra-party warfare. Unless, of course, he can get such a proposal on the floor, and get enough anti-environment conservatives to join him in inserting a carbon tax 'poison pill' to sink House energy legislation."
Patrick Kennedy, in a post at BlueClimate.com, speculates that Dingell's true motive is to head off tougher vehicle mileage standards under the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program:
"Dingell, the auto manufacturers' best friend, has been opposed to raising the CAFE standard for years. Speaker Pelosi has recently said that she expected the CAFE standard to come up as part of the climate legislation in the fall rather than during consideration of the House energy bill. If the climate bill dies in a swirl of controversy over a new tax, does an increase in the CAFE standard die too?"
On CAFE, Dingell's position illustrates trouble ahead among Democratic lawmakers and presidential contenders, reports The Wall Street Journal:
"Many of the issues at the heart of the climate and energy debate – from coal policy to auto emissions – often blur, not sharpen, party distinctions. And it isn't just Mr. Dingell fuzzing things up. In the Senate, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama raised the ire of environmentalists by pushing a proposal coveted by coal producers, an industry important to his home state of Illinois. "The Senate already has approved an increase to 35 miles per gallon for all cars and light trucks, 40 percent above current standards, as part of energy legislation approved in June with bipartisan support. "But the outlook is uncertain in the House, largely because of Mr. Dingell."
Among many activists, Dingell's seniority and powerful position as chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce make him a prime target for political attack on climate issues. In new radio ads running in the congressman's Ann Arbor, Mich., district, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org depicts Dingell as a "dinosaur" whose views on global warming haven't kept pace with the times, reports The Hill, a newspaper for and about Congress.
"In the ads, a father tests his son's knowledge of dinosaurs. One example stumps him. " 'A Dingellsaurus,' the father explains. 'Someone who has been around so long he forgets about the people who sent him there.' "The father then identifies Dingell-as-Dingellsaurus as a creature 'standing in the way of the first energy bill ever that would really combat global warming.'"
The fight over carbon taxes and other aspects of energy policy and climate change is shaping up to be a major test for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California. "Can Pelosi Say Nyet To Her Party's Old Bulls?" asks The Washington Post in a headline over a column by Sebastian Mallaby. He writes:
"Dingell initially supported a measure that was even worse, and Pelosi forced him to improve it. But the resulting 'compromise' is still a disgrace, and Pelosi needs to fix it. If she can stand up to George W. Bush, she ought to be able to stand up to an old bull from Detroit whose environmental views are out of step with the party and the country."