Rep. John D. Dingell is a recent convert on climate change. In more than 50 years in Congress, representing a Michigan district that includes suburban Detroit, he has been a tough-talking defender of the auto industry. But now Dingell is proposing tough legislation that would impose a sharp carbon tax on American consumers of energy, including a 50-cent surcharge on every gallon of gasoline. Some critics suspect that Dingell is posturing—proposing a far-reaching measure that's sure to die as a way of obstructing other proposals. NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet spoke to Dingell about his change of heart, and his legislative aims. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Last December, you weren't convinced that global warming was a scientific fact. You told an interviewer for Grist [an environmental news site] that the country "is great at having consensuses that are in great error." Have you changed your views?
John Dingell: I'm not going to tell you I changed my views. I'm going to tell you what my views are. First of all, there appears to be a scientific consensus that there is a problem here and that something has to be done. Second of all, I'm of the view that this consensus flows over into a popular consensus that we have to do something about it, and so I intend to do the most sensible thing I can about it.
Your draft legislation begins: "The earth is getting warmer and human activities are a large part of the cause. We need to act in order to prevent a serious problem." That's very emphatic. How did you arrive at that language?
Well, I told you, it's what I happen to think.
So you emphatically believe that global warming is happening and it's a scientific fact.
What I said in the preamble to the legislation is what I think.
There are some people who are a little skeptical about your views. In July, you told C-Span that you "sincerely doubt" that Americans are willing to pay the cost of a carbon tax.
I maintain that view today. I think Americans, when they find out what this is going to cost, are going to be very, very unhappy. And people like me who are telling them that certain things should be done if this is a problem are going to descend upon me. I'm already having trouble with those people on this. And I'm having all kinds of trouble with people who are charging me with everything from insincerity to cynicism and whatever you might want to name.
What do you say to those people who say that you're cynical, that you're proposing something that's very far-reaching, knowing that it's not going to pass as a way of obstructing something that's perhaps a little more moderate?
First of all, I deny that this is cynicism. I've pointed out that legislation is the art of the possible. And I've also pointed out that as chairman of the [Energy and Commerce Committee] that's going to be moving legislation, it's my duty to put together the best bill I can. It's also my duty to see to it that people have the opportunity to address all the questions, and that we have a full and intelligent debate of the matter. If we don't have a full and intelligent debate, I'd like you to explain to me how in the name of common sense we're going to be able to write a good piece of legislation. Right now, I'm having the devil's own time getting people to come forward to discuss this thing, because most people are afraid. For example, there are a lot of people running around saying, "Let's do cap-and-trade" [a program to cap emissions and trade carbon credits]. They're not telling you that cap-and-trade is essentially a tax package.
So you want to be more upfront about it?
I want to be honest about it. I don't intend to have people look me in the eye later and say, "Dingell, you lied about this."
The carbon tax you have proposed would be applied to gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene and other fuel products …
… Except diesel. And the reason is a very good one. I want to see to it that we begin to move toward diesel as the Europeans have, because they have put in place a preferential tax treatment for diesel, which has got Europeans driving in small cars. And diesel gives you 25 percent fuel benefit, and that is more than you get out of most hybrids. Biofuels are also exempt. Look … there's going to be pain here and everybody's going to have to take it. I've told industry one thing more: I said, "Fellas, we're going to write a bill you're going to hate, but it's a bill that I'll try to see that you can live with, and that won't affect competitiveness, jobs and industry in this country beyond a level [that is necessary]." I've also told them this: "If you don't work with me, you'll get a bill that you can't live with."
What do the automakers say to that?
The automakers and I are pushing a package that will give a 40 percent increase in fuel efficiency. That is, for all intents and purposes, the equal of any other piece of legislation on Corporate Average Fuel Economy [CAFE standards, which set targets for car manufacturers for fuel economy].
Are you saying they might accept the carbon tax because it's just a tax; it doesn't affect their manufacturing process [as CAFE standards do]?
Let's be honest. If you want this system to work, you have to do both. And if you don't believe me, take a look at this country. We have increased fuel efficiency by doubling it under CAFE. That is extraordinary. But if you take a look, you'll also see that everybody is charging around in SUVs. Why are they doing that? Because SUVs are comfortable. Because they're big. Because they look good in the driveway. Because a guy who doesn't have an SUV isn't looking as good as his neighbors, and that hurts their feelings. Having said that, they can also throw a load of duck decoys into the back end of the car, their shotgun, their hunting clothes and boots, put their friends in there and their hunting dog, and go duck hunting. They can haul a trailer or a boat, take seven or eight kids to a soccer game. Mom can do that, and pick up a huge load of groceries, and Pop can get the building materials he needs to fix his garage. He can't do that in a Volkswagon, can he?
So you're saying that by putting a tax on gasoline, you will encourage people to buy smaller cars and …
… Let me make it very clear: I'm not running out here saying you have to put a tax on gasoline. But I am saying that if you want to have an intelligent discussion and you want to make the system work, this is something you have got to consider. If people don't want it, it ain't going to happen. And people have to understand what the opportunities and the penalties are going to be. I want them to understand: this is going to hurt. And when I said that I didn't think Americans were ready to accept the cost and the misery that goes with gas taxes and carbon taxes, I was right. If politicians would run around and tell people that's what cap-and-trade is going to do to them, there would be no small resistance to that, too.
People with big houses will also feel some hurt with this plan. One of the items on your list is a tax on …
That's a part of sharing the pain here.
So for people with McMansions larger than 3,000 square feet, you would reduce the amount they can deduct in mortgage-interest payments, right?
That's right. But it's only going to affect 10 percent of the houses in the country. And it's going to result in a very big savings to the country in terms of energy. And we've put in there provisions to enable separate treatment for old homes and farm homes and homes of that kind. And we've got provisions that [increase the impact] as you get a bigger house.
This sounds like it could be a good idea, but …
It's a good idea, but I'll point out to you that it's probably going to be an extremely unpopular idea.
And in light of the subprime mortgage crisis, a new tax on big homes could be risky. Some say it'll spur many more foreclosures. Is it a good idea, but bad timing?
I don't know. You're going to have to take a look at that. That's one of the reasons we're putting it on our Web site. We're not introducing legislation [yet], we're saying, "Fellas, this is one of the options you've got; what do you think of it?"
OK, let me get your position straight on CAFE standards that would increase the gas-mileage requirement for American cars. You have opposed CAFE standards that would require …
That is a bare-faced lie. I have not opposed CAFE standards. I'm one of the authors of it years ago.
I didn't finish my sentence.
OK, finish your sentence.
And I hope you'll correct me if I'm wrong. My understanding is that you have opposed CAFE standards that would require the average car to get 35 miles per gallon by 2018 or 2020.
I am a cosponsor of a bill that gets 32 miles per gallon for light-duty trucks, and 35 miles a gallon for an automobile by the year 2022. In practice, the difference is almost undiscernable. And if you want to hear why I oppose that other kind of deal, I'll make it very clear to you.
But the first thing you've got to understand is this: automobiles hitting the showrooms the first of October started on the drawing board about five to six years ago. So that's
the amount of time it takes to do the engineering. You've got to understand: my job is not to see that these things don't happen, but see to it that they happen in a way that doesn't destroy the jobs, and the opportunities of the people I work for. But I said I'd tell you what I was opposed to … What I really object to in this silly legislation floating around here is, first, it was something written on the Senate floor in the middle of the night. Two, there were no hearings on it. Three, nobody knows really whether it works or not. Four, people are running around over there saying, "Oh, Dingell will fix it over there in the House." So they make this infernal mess and dump it in my lap and say, "Now, Dingell, you fix this while we run around denouncing you for doing what you do to preserve jobs in the auto industry." So I think I'm entitled to a little fairer treatment here than I'm getting from folks in your line of work who sometimes mouth what the environmentalists are saying with a plethora of ignorance on their own part.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed the special committee on energy independence and global warming, it was seen as a way to sidestep you. You, in turn, said the committee would be "as useful as feathers on a fish."
I maintain that view.
Are you getting along with Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, [who heads the special committee]?
I get along with Representative Markey.
Is there cooperation or do you feel there is …
… We have a different function. I run a legislative committee. Mr. Markey runs around the world watching glaciers melt.
Are you able to work together on legislation?
I remember no discussion with him about legislation.
How soon are we likely to see climate-change legislation enacted?
Let me remind you. I say we will write this legislation just as fast as we can. I have the duty to hear from everybody, so I write a good piece of legislation, so there are no unintended consequences. I've made it clear to everybody in industry, including the auto industry, that everybody is going to feel pain and we're going to see to it that you do. But we're going to treat you fair. And we're going to try to write something that works. The sad thing is that industry listens to me and nobody in the press, like you, or the environmentalists, does any listening to me on this point.
I have been trying to line up this interview for more than three weeks.
Well, I suggest you try to listen to me while you've got it.
It'll run as a Q&A.
Good, good. I ask you to take a hard look at what I'm trying to do: write a good piece of legislation, and I've been writing legislation for 50 years. And I would remind you of one thing else: I have written most of the major environmental legislation that has been done in this Congress during this time. And I have been generally successful in the undertakings in which I have been engaged.
And you think this will be successful?
I'm not going to tell you. I'm going to do my level damned best.