Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the only African-American to ever command the panel’s gavel, speaks with obvious pride about his nearly 50 years of legislative achievement.
But the second-most-senior member of the House — only fellow Michigan Democrat John Dingell has served longer — can’t hide his frustration at being back in the minority party.
“It’s easier to be chairman than a former chairman,” the courtly, 84-year-old Conyers deadpans, half-jokingly.
Conyers does not offer anything specifically negative about the current Judiciary chairman, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Rather, he says of Republicans on the committee generally: “These guys aren’t uncivil or unfair. It’s that we have a different perspective in what we’re trying to get accomplished.”
At the same time, there is no sympathy from Conyers for the turmoil Goodlatte, Speaker John Boehner, and other GOP leaders are experiencing because of pressure from conservatives in their party. He says Democrats had it worse from the late 1940s through when he arrived in Congress in 1965, a period when many conservative Democrats splintered the party over civil rights.
“When you consider turmoil — the folks around here now, they haven’t seen anything,” he said.
Conyers has always served on the Judiciary Committee — the first African-American to do so — since coming to the House in 1965 as a young lawyer representing a Detroit-area district.
From that committee, he has remained a fixture on the American political scene, spanning the era of civil-rights and voting-rights struggles through divisive presidential impeachment proceedings and the Iraq War. His ascension to Judiciary chairman occurred in 2007 after House Democrats were swept into the majority, only to see his gavel taken away when Republicans regained control in 2011.
“Given that committee’s pivotal role in blocking major civil-rights measures for decades across the 20th century, I suspect that his chairmanship will be recognized as a key moment in congressional history,” says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University.
While it may be too early to write the final chapter of Conyers’s congressional legacy, his nearly half-century on Capitol Hill has left a long record of legislative activity. Conyers has sponsored bills and worked on issues involving voting-rights extensions, domestic violence, hate-crime prevention, fair sentencing, and increased access to health care.
Conyers holds the distinction of being the only member of Congress involved in the impeachment proceedings against two presidents. Conyers also was one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He proudly notes that he was the only African-American candidate ever endorsed by Martin Luther King Jr., and he employed civil-rights icon Rosa Parks on his congressional staff from 1965 to 1988.
“The legislation that I’m most pleased with — the King holiday bill — didn’t come out of the [Judiciary] Committee,” Conyers said of his 18-year battle to pass legislation commemorating King’s life with a federal holiday, signed by President Reagan in 1983.
Conyers has led a number of notable congressional investigations, including one ending in a 2006 report based on hearings and documents that determined that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and administration officials had misled Congress about the decision to go to war in Iraq. And as Judiciary chairman in 2007, Conyers led an investigation of U.S. attorney firings under Bush. His committee and the House held several administration officials in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate.
Of course, there also have been setbacks. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Detroit twice, in 1989 and 1993. And in 2009, his wife, who was the Detroit City Council president pro tem, pleaded guilty to taking bribes and received a prison sentence.
Today, Conyers remains very much the same soft-spoken lawmaker he always has been, although he’s still aggressively liberal. In National Journal’s vote ratings for 2012, Conyers was ranked tied with 13 others as the most left-leaning members in the House. “I have never been attacked for being a conservative proponent of anything,” he said.
But his aim has not always been trained on the opposition. For instance, he has been critical of President Obama for being too eager to placate congressional Republicans. “I think it’s commonly understood “¦ that White House lunches and dinners and outings will not get it with them [Republicans]. It will not advance his cause,” Conyers said.
Conyers also has taken the administration to task for domestic-surveillance programs, and this year sponsored, with fellow Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican, a bill that would have barred the National Security Agency from spending money on surveillance of any citizen not already the subject of an investigation.
Democrats don’t always agree with him, either. In fact, many on his committee broke with the ranking member and joined Republicans to advance a patent-litigation bill just last week.
But Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a freshman member of the committee, says he regards Conyers as “a legendary member of the House of Representatives whose presence will always be important and relevant to whatever issues may be on the table before the Judiciary Committee.” Another committee Democrat, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, says Conyers is “a man of great conscience and conviction.”
Nevertheless, Binder and others say it’s simply hard to be influential as a member of the minority party in the House, especially in a period of great polarization and starkly contrasting policy agendas.
But fellow Michigan Democrat Sander Levin, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, says Conyers does his best. “He wouldn’t want you to say he’s simply riding along on his past accomplishments,” Levin said. “He’s active. Influential.”