You Think the Dems Don't Have 'Ideas'?

Reps. Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers, Barney Frank and Charlie Rangel may be the Democrats that Republicans are trying to get voters to hate.

But if the House goes Democratic this fall, the agenda to watch may belong to Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat in line to return as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Sane Democrats understand, after all, that Conyers' rantings about the need to repeal the Patriot Act or hold impeachment hearings would be a non-starter with the public. There is little chance Rangel will be able to persuade Congress to repeal the Bush tax cuts. Even if she wanted to, San Francisco's Pelosi wouldn't get very far with the social agenda favored by San Francisco Democrats.

But the House Energy and Commerce Committee has its fingers in nearly every nook and cranny of the American economy. And for those who complain that the Democrats lack a serious domestic agenda, Dingell can be expected to single-handedly make up for the gap. Dingell, who has spent slightly more than 50 of his 80 years in Congress, has never been a shrinking violet when it came to the exercise of power — but neither is he a raving ideologue.

Thus in a recent interview he resisted the temptation to gloat over the current polls (or that Republicans in Michigan were unable to come up with a candidate to run against him). "There's an old saying that before you sell a bear hide you've got to shoot the bear," as he puts it. "The voters usually have their own ideas about these things."

When pressed, however, he confesses to a lengthy list of initiatives that he has in mind should he once again run the committee that he chaired from 1981 to 1994. For starters, Dingell favors legislation to "reform" health care in incremental steps. His ultimate goal: universal health care along the lines of the Canadian system, an idea his congressman father first introduced in Congress in the late 1930s and that he has re-introduced at the start of each new Congress.

Dingell also supports the idea of a "Manhattan Project" for energy; higher levies on food and drug companies to finance a more active Food and Drug Administration; free access to broadband digital service; an end to "unfair currency manipulation" by Japan and China; and much, much else. Insofar as "oversight, oversight, oversight" is the Democratic mantra of the moment, Dingell makes clear he will provide plenty of that as well.

"You saw how I ran the committee before," he told me with a chuckle. He loved nothing more than to call witnesses before his committee and give them the third degree — often insisting that they take an oath even when testifying on routine matters. More than one Republican went to jail for discrepancies.

Not long after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 I ran into Dingell in Washington. He looked bereft, almost physically shattered. The world that many of the old Democratic bulls like Dingell took for granted had inexplicably fallen apart. He still mourns what he sees as the "divisiveness" of politics in recent years — which a Republican might be forgiven for interpreting as stemming from a refusal to acknowledge there might be any legitimate differences of opinion.

But Dingell soldiered on, briefly basking in the attention he received on his 50th anniversary in Congress last year. (Even Dick Cheney put in some kind words.) This year he says he feels positively energized despite his advancing years. "I work 12-14-hour days seven days a week, I'm getting ready to go duck hunting and I feel nothing much has changed since I was in my 30s," he asserted.

In truth, Dingell has always frustrated many ideologues on the left by his willingness to work with Republicans to protect the hometown industry, Detroit's automakers. He is deeply wary of the zealotry with which Al Gore and others pursue global warming, for example. Yes, he says, global warming would be on the committee's agenda if he is chairman, but the first goal would be "to gather the facts" — even though global warming ideologues consider the debate closed.

But automakers and other old-line manufacturers blame many of their economic woes on the fact that health care costs are soaring. Detroit places the cost at $1,500 a car, roughly double what they pay for steel. Among other things, Dingell favors immediate relief through a "Medicare for All" system - perhaps starting with laid-off auto workers. He says he would also work to replace the Bush drug plan with a direct government benefit.

"One-third of the $2 trillion or so that we are spending is eaten up in management fees and corporate bureaucracy," he claims, and elimination of that would allow even bigger benefits.

Of course, as humorist P.J. O'Rourke once pointed out, if you think health care is expensive now, wait until it's "free." And in even daring to raise the possibility of what Republicans like to term "socialized medicine," Dingell risks reminding Republicans why they should get to the polls. But Dingell makes one thing clear: while there may not be many new ideas on the Democratic side of the aisle, as many Democrats themselves have complained, there are plenty of old — arguably bad — ideas awaiting resurrection.