John Dingell (D-Mich.), new chairman of the House of Energy and Commerce Committee, says it is nothing personal. It is mere coincidence that his reorganization plan would remove the committee's second-ranking Democrat, James H. Scheuer (N.Y.), from a subcommittee chairmanship.
Scheuer takes a less benign view. He has no doubts that Dingell's plan is "a personal vendetta" based on Scheuer's support of airbags for automobiles and other consumer measures.
It is reorganization time in Congress and the resulting shift of committee assignments will, to an important extent, help shape future legislation. Most of the chairmanships are determined by a combination of seniority, genteel competition and compromise. Occasionally, a nasty fight arises.
The battle between Dingell, the notorious bulldog from Detroit, and Scheuer, a Brooklyn millionaire of negligible popularity in the House, is an entertaining illustration of the byzantine workings of Congress, but for House leaders it is a troubling spectacle.
Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) yesterday called together Dingell, Scheuer and other prospective Commerce subcommittee chairmen in an effort to save Scheuer's consumer protection and finance unit, one of the main consumer outposts in the House. The problem is partly that no committee is supposed to have more than six subcommittees. The Dingell committee already does, and now Dingell wants to create a new energy subcommittee and parcel out the Scheuer panel's responsibilites -- including the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Transportation Safety Administration -- among other subcommittees.
His plan is necessary, Dingell said, "to even out the workload of the committees" because the existing energy and power subcommittee is overloaded. However, the result -- leaving the second ranking committee member virtually powerless -- would be almost unprecedented.
Dingell claims Scheuer would not have the votes for chairman in today's caucus even if his subcommittee remained intact. Pointing out that Scheuer won his chairmanship by only a single vote last time, Dingell added, "if I were held in that kind of esteem by my colleagues, I'd have the same apprehension he's feeling."
But in an interview in his office, Scheuer said Dingell, whose Detroit district includes many auto workers, is "irrational" on the subject of auto safety requirements. Scheuer favored airbags and strict emission standards, and "I enraged him by standing up to him," Scheuer said.