Many major accomplishments define John Dingell’s record-setting career in Congress: passing environmental laws, protecting Second Amendment rights, supporting the auto industry, rooting out corruption in government. But the thread that will tie together 59 years in the House when Dingell retires in January is health care reform.
Efforts to obtain coverage for all Americans began with Dingell’s father, Rep. John Dingell Sr., who introduced a bill to provide national health insurance in 1943. The elder Dingell pushed the legislation every year until his death in September 1955, and the son continued the tradition after winning a special election to fill his father’s seat three months later.
“It’s hard to believe that there was once no Social Security or Medicare,” Dingell told the editor of The Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone, in 2002. “The Dingell family helped change that. My father worked on Social Security and for national health insurance, and I sat in the chair and presided over the House as Medicare passed. I went with Lyndon Johnson for the signing of Medicare at the Harry S. Truman Library, and I have successfully fought efforts to privatize Social Security and Medicare.”
Dingell kept the gavel he used to close the vote on Medicare in 1965, and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi borrowed it in 2010 to gavel in House passage of the Affordable Care Act. It’s safe to say the bill probably wouldn’t have passed without the work by Dingell to persuade moderate Blue Dog Democrats to support the legislation.
On the day President Obama signed the bill in March 2010, Dingell vigorously defended the new law on a Detroit radio station. “The harsh fact of the matter is, when you’re going to pass legislation that will cover 300 million American people in different ways, it takes a long time to do the necessary administrative steps that have to be taken to put the legislation together to control the people,” he said. When he was asked later what he meant by the phrase “control the people,” Dingell said: “I was referring to the insurance companies who we must do a better job of overseeing.”
The Michigan Democrat, who turns 88 in July, became the longest-serving member of Congress last June when he surpassed the previous record held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. Much has been written about Dingell’s remarkable political career since he reached the milestone, with emphasis on triumphs such as passage of the Endangered Species Act, uncovering scientific fraud, and exposing a Pentagon contract for $600 toilet seats.
The accolades overshadowed some of Dingell’s less memorable but still interesting tales, including the fact that his father changed his last name from Dzieglewicz and campaigned for Congress with the slogan “Ring (in) with Dingell.”
Other sidelights of Dingell’s remarkable career:
He worked as a page and an elevator operator while his father served in the House.
Dingell shot rats “as big as cats” with an air rifle in the Capitol basement, according to Time magazine.
His life may have been saved by the atomic bomb. Dingell received orders to join the Army’s invasion of Japan planned for November 1945, but President Truman ended the war three months earlier by dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1981, Dingell was quoted in a film produced by the National Rifle Association as saying federal agents for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were “a jack-booted group of fascists who are … a shame and a disgrace to our country.” But years later when the NRA mailed fundraising letters calling ATF agents “jack-booted thugs,” Dingell resigned from the NRA board.
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Dingell was the only Michigan Democrat to vote for the Gulf War resolution in January 1991, but he voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002.
One of Dingell’s proudest accomplishments is a wildlife refuge established along the Detroit River in 2001. The refuge now spreads over 5,000 acres.
He and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D‑Mich., put the brakes on Canadian shipments of trash to a landfill near Detroit in 2003, citing a 1992 treaty that requires Canada to notify the Environmental Protection Agency of any waste shipments into the U.S.
When Dingell resumed his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee after Democrats regained control of the House in 2006, he was asked about his priorities after 12 years of a Republican majority. “We will kill the closest snake first,” he said.
In an interview with Grist in 2006, Dingell was asked what he did to reduce his environmental footprint. “Well, I heat my house not above 70 degrees,” he said. “I take a Navy shower. I carpool with my wife. I shut off the water when I’m cleaning my teeth. I recycle every damn thing I can recycle.”
This article appears in the February 25, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Dingell’s Healthy Obsession.
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