What many consider to be the golden age of congressional oversight can be summed up by a word coined but no longer heard much on Capitol Hill: “Dingell-gram.”
Sometimes used with love and affection — but more often associated with fear — the term describes the many pointed missives sent to officials in the executive branch and elsewhere over several decades by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and his vaunted staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Sometimes, you write a letter as part of an investigation; sometimes, you write it just to find out what’s going on,” said Dingell, now chairman emeritus of the committee after 16 years as its chief and 12 as ranking member. “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.”
During his prime years as chairman, 1981 through 1994, Dingell investigated everything from scientific fraud and Wall Street corruption to Superfund mismanagement and product safety. His inquiries exposed waste and malfeasance in government, business, and academia, and earned him a reputation as one of the most powerful members in congressional history. Dingell’s deliberate, penetrating interrogations led to Washington seminars on how to deal with a probe by his panel. “In so many ways, he’s one of a kind,” said University of California (Los Angeles) political science professor Joel Aberbach, author of Keeping a Watchful Eye: The Politics of Congressional Oversight.
Dingell, 86, is not only the longest-serving member of the House in U.S. history (his first term began on Dec. 13, 1955), he also took over the seat from his father, John Dingell Sr., who served more than 22 years until his death in September 1955. On June 8, assuming he remains in office, Dingell will surpass the record of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., as the longest-serving member of Congress, having put in 57 years and 157 days on Capitol Hill.
In terms of oversight, Dingell as chairman transformed a long-neglected congressional function into an attention-getting public service, especially when the evening news spotlighted witnesses sweating in the face of his relentless questioning. He was well on the way to becoming a taxpayers’ hero in 1985 when he uncovered a Pentagon contract with what was then Lockheed Corp. to supply toilet seat covers for military aircraft at $640 apiece.
Aberbach compared the Michigan icon to the late Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., who famously awarded “Golden Fleece Awards” to government officials who egregiously wasted public funds. “The comparison is somewhat unflattering,” Aberbach said, because “Dingell-grams” were far more than a public-relations gimmick — the letters resulted in policy changes, new laws, and occasionally prison terms for wrongdoers.
“I’m an old trial lawyer and prosecutor,” Dingell said. “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.”
Former Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., became the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee chair in 2007, after Democrats regained control of the House and Dingell again became Energy and Commerce chairman but opted not to also run the subcommittee as he had earlier. Stupak acknowledged he was filling big shoes — and not just because of the 6-foot-3-inch frame that earned Dingell “The Truck” and “Big John” as nicknames. “He is very thorough,” Stupak said. “His questions are always well put, which is important when you only have five minutes to get an answer.”
Dingell fought in World War II and practiced law in Detroit in the postwar years. He said he never anticipated serving in Congress but was urged to run in the special election after his father’s death. He immediately took on his father’s top cause, introducing a bill calling for universal health care coverage at the start of every Congress.
An avid hunter, Dingell has always been an advocate for both gun rights and environmental protection, authoring the Endangered Species Act of 1973. And as a representative from the Motor City, he has long been the auto industry’s go-to man in Washington.
But he is far from a single-issue lawmaker. The list of problems he has tackled from the helm of Energy and Commerce includes climate change, auto safety, health care costs, product liability, corporate corruption, telecommunications monopolies, lending fraud, and toxic waste.
“I try to do things,” Dingell said. Recent examples include bills to improve the safety of food, pharmaceuticals, and pipelines — all of which were passed with Republican cosponsors after months of committee hearings and investigation.
“I always used oversight as a tool to make things change,” he said, “either by making people out there reform themselves, or by doing something equally important, which was getting legislation that would correct the problem.”
Asked about his style as chairman, described by some critics as bullying, Dingell said, “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.”¦
“Sometimes we didn’t need legislation because we’d write “˜Dingell-grams’ “¦ and these letters would get what we needed in the way of answers about what was going on. If we caught people lying, we’d haul them in before the committee. But we always did it with courtesy and respect.”