WASHINGTON — Frank Pallone has waited a long time for this moment.
The Democratic congressman from the Jersey Shore passed on a chance to seize a Senate vacancy in 2002. He tried in 2013 but lost a primary race to Sen. Cory Booker. Now, more than 30 years after joining the U.S. House, he has landed one of the chamber’s most powerful positions, leading the Committee on Energy and Commerce.
With a sprawling mandate that ranges from the environment to health care to interstate commerce, the committee handles around 6 in 10 House bills, Pallone said. The post will make the Monmouth County resident one of the region’s most influential Democrats, with the power to shape debates on some of the most contentious issues of the day.
Instead of being a minority Democrat in the Senate, “now he’s banging a gavel,” said Bill Castner, a longtime Democratic lawyer who once interned for Pallone.
Pallone laid out his agenda as Democrats took control of the House last week, saying he would call a hearing on climate change by the end of the month, followed by hearings on the Trump administration’s “sabotage” of the Affordable Care Act and the president’s family separation policy at the southern border. Net neutrality regulations and gaming laws could also be priorities.
Each will give Pallone, 67, a platform on national issues that have captivated progressives, but could also challenge him to balance the preferences of mainstream Democrats and a restive liberal base urging aggressive action. His new role has already invited pressure from liberal groups.
The environment and health care have been signature issues for Pallone since he joined Congress in 1988.
“Being the chair of the committee that handles those issues is really the pinnacle of success for him,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, based in the congressman’s home county.
Most Democratic bills, of course, have little chance of becoming law, with Republicans holding the Senate and President Donald Trump in the White House. But the bills that emerge from the committee could set the foundations for future legislation.
“It becomes a benchmark,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.
Pallone, who graduated from high school in 1969 and headed to Middlebury College in Vermont, has long been known as one of the most liberal lawmakers in a liberal state, beloved by environmentalists and labor unions. He made his name pushing to protect New Jersey beaches and to clean polluted Superfund sites, helped write portions of the Affordable Care Act, and then played a visible role defending it from GOP repeal attempts. His campaign logo features an ocean wave curling inside the "O" in his name.
Yet a push from a new wave of liberals could undercut Pallone’s voice on the environmental issues that have long driven him. Their approach and unwillingness to bow to party seniority has already put Pallone at odds with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), a new champion of the left. The different approaches reflect the broader potential for tension between pragmatic veteran Democrats, newcomers who represent moderate districts, and a bloc of freshmen pushing for a more radical style.
Ocasio-Cortez threw her voice and following behind a proposal, the Green New Deal, calling for aggressive goals on climate change, including massive federal investments to push the United States to rely entirely on renewable energy within a decade. Pallone and Ocasio-Cortez reportedly clashed over the push internally, as the New Jerseyan and other senior Democrats sought to retain their jurisdiction on the issue and raised questions about whether the plan is realistic.
In November, a group of young activists from the environmentally focused Sunrise Movement protested at Pallone’s office.
“If he wants to prove that he cares about young voters who just delivered the House to Democrats, he must back Ocasio-Cortez’s plan,” a spokesperson for the group said at the time.
While party leaders refused to embrace the Green New Deal, which critics say lacks specific plans to reach its ambitious goals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did create a special committee to hold hearings on climate change. It didn’t go as far as activists wanted, and won’t have subpoena power or the ability to call votes, but could still compete with Pallone’s panel when it comes to setting the Democratic agenda.
“He’s been working on these issues since day one in Congress and some of these issues have now been taken away from him,” Murray said.
Pallone has criticized the new committee as unnecessary, and indicated that he doesn’t plan to take a backseat. He said chairing Energy and Commerce gives him a chance to raise the climate issues that Republicans have long buried, to help make health care more affordable, and to provide oversight of the Trump administration. He can subpoena witnesses and push legislation.
While the New Jersey Republican chairman, Doug Steinhardt, said Pallone should "dig into the hard work of making New Jersey more affordable and business-friendly,” the congressman said the environment and health care directly affect people’s livelihoods.
“When you talk about climate change, many people think of it just like an environmental issue, but it’s not just that. It’s a health issue, and it’s an economic issue,” Pallone said, worrying that the United States is “falling behind” other countries that have sped up investments in renewable energy. “You can’t ignore the burgeoning markets for things like solar panels and wind turbines and the economic impact that these things have.”
He said the Green New Deal is “something we will look into, I’m not dismissing it, it’s just that some aspects of it, I’m not sure if they’re technologically feasible.” He pointed to the goal of ending a reliance on fossil fuels in 10 years, instead noting the 20- to 30-year timelines adopted in other Western countries.
“We have to have consensus within our Democratic caucus to move ahead, and then ultimately we have to get the support of Republicans if we’re going to accomplish things,” Pallone said.
Tittel, whose group supports the more aggressive goals but also hailed Pallone as an environmental leader, said the differences between the congressman and the new wave of activists is not in ideology, but approach. Pallone, who has been in public office since 1982 as a city councilman, state legislator, and congressman, is more methodical, Tittel said.
“It’s not about substance, it’s more about style,” he said. “Some people rush forward. He kind of builds step-by-step.”