Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., became the longest-serving member of Congress in history—surpassing the late Robert Byrd—on Friday: 57 years, five months, and 26 days from when he took office in 1955 after winning a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of his father, John Dingell Sr., who had represented a Detroit-area district since 1933. Dingell, who turns 87 in July, talked with National Journal about his tenure and how the House has changed. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Did you expect to run for Congress as a young man?
DINGELL I think my dad wanted me to succeed him, but he never told me. When Dad passed on, my friends and his friends said, “John, you ought to run for Congress.”
NJ How has the institution changed since you arrived?
DINGELL I’ve had several jobs where your integrity was of exquisite importance. The first when I was a second lieutenant in the infantry, then when I became an attorney, and then when I came to Congress. We learned early on that in this job either a member was sincere or not sincere. If he was sincere, it didn’t make any difference what he said, because he was respected. If he was insincere, he was outside the pale and that was a very serious misfortune to the people he served.
When Dad came here, he had one office up on the fifth floor of the Cannon Building, two desks—one for him and one for his secretary. He had one telephone, one typewriter, and one electric fan. He had no trips home and no long-distance telephone account. The family came down here in March and stayed till the Congress went home. Members formed friendships, and had parties and get-togethers. Now, members come down in time for votes on Monday or Tuesday at 6:30 and already have reservations to go home on Thursday or Friday. They have their families back home, and the families don’t really have an identification with the Congress.
When [former Speaker Newt] Gingrich came in, he brought with him two things. One was the most bitter partisanship imaginable and a bunch of people who practiced that, like [Dick] Armey and [Tom] DeLay; and then he took everything into the speaker’s office. Nothing was done in the committees. The House lost its independence and became a tool of the speaker. Nothing has changed since then.
NJ You are best known for congressional oversight.
DINGELL I’m an old trial lawyer and prosecutor. I understand our unique history for folly. I’ve studied what the Congress does, and one of the most important functions is oversight: to see that money is properly spent, that the laws are faithfully implemented, to see to it that agencies do what they’re supposed to. To Republicans it’s a hearing. A hearing is really your last resort. First is gathering the facts. Sometimes you write a letter as part of an investigation, sometimes you write it just to find out what’s going on. Sometimes you write that letter to see to it that the people who are being investigated know what they are doing. And not infrequently it has the practical effect of scaring the daylights out of them.
I rarely argued with anybody, I just asked questions. When they found they couldn’t answer the questions, all of a sudden there’d be a change in behavior or a change of policy. And sometimes after a Dingell-gram it wasn’t necessary to have a hearing.
NJ Among your accomplishments was the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
DINGELL Somebody said, “Dingell, what a great job you did to get it through the floor in 13 hours,” which was quite an accomplishment. But it took me 13 years to get it ready.
NJ What was your strategy on difficult bills like that?
DINGELL I always used oversight as a tool to make things change, either by making people out there reform themselves or by getting legislation that would correct the problem. My way was to always get the Right and the Left—to start building out from the middle. And we would wind up with just a very few [members] opposed at the far right and the very far left. And the bills would pass by large majorities. We used oversight to get what we needed to know, and to show that the legislation was needed, and then we proceeded.
NJ Any thoughts about becoming the longest-serving member of Congress in history?
DINGELL I’m pleased I’ve served a long time, but, very frankly, I will be more pleased to have people think that I’ve served well. I haven’t just sailed through these elections. I’ve gone out and I’ve won ’em. We worked like hell to do it. Every once in a while we’d get a big fight at election time, and I always said, “This is great, because you need a fight every once in a while to build your organization, and you need one every once in a while to see to it that you encourage your friends.”