The accolades in honor of Rep. John Dingell, who recently announced his retirement, have been both deafening and entirely deserved. In Congress’s history, one could probably count on two hands the number of members who have had as much of an impact on the institution and its public policy as he has. Books could, and should, be written about Dingell’s mastery of the legislative process. His understanding of the accumulation, use, and protection of power, and, most important, the enormously consequential pieces of legislation that he crafted, have all allowed him to put his mark upon Congress. Dingell has been an important player for longer than many of his colleagues have been alive, and he either authored or substantially crafted a number of laws that many today take for granted. These include, but are by no means limited to, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1990 Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, Medicare, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
While chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the Michigan Democrat had on the wall a photo of Earth from space, representing his view of the panel’s jurisdiction: Everything on Earth, if it “moves, burns, or is sold,” falls under the purview of Energy and Commerce. Through his Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee — which at one point operated with more than 100 staffers — Dingell was often intimidating. He frequently played the role of the “grand inquisitor,” sending “Dingell-grams” to a variety of individuals throughout his career. These Dingell-grams were usually probing letters seeking additional information from bureaucrats and corporate executives alike, in an attempt to uncover wrongs and get to the bottom of anything that smelled amiss to him. Woe be unto anyone, in government or the private sector, who misled or was evasive toward the often gruff Dingell.
Many of the tributes to Dingell refer to him as a “Congressional Giant,” a nickname due not just to his stature — which topped out at 6 feet 3 inches — but to the outsized role he played on Capitol Hill. No one has been a more tenacious fighter for working people or the causes he believed in than Rep. John Dingell. He was known as a legislative Rottweiler, showing no fear or hesitation; a man who was happy to terrorize any corporate CEO or anyone else he felt was wronging the taxpayer or the little guy.
And yet, for all his tenacity, Dingell is also incredibly courteous and deferential.
I once asked him about that contradiction, suggesting that I had a difficult time reconciling his longtime image of being the meanest lion in the jungle with this incredibly kind person whom I had come to know a decade or so previously. With a twinkle, he replied, “It was a reputation that served me well.” Very few chose to mess with Dingell.
His propensity to ask questions and seek to understand things better continues up to this day. A couple of years ago, in my living room, Dingell sat down with an Army private (my son) and one of his best friends, a private in the Marine Corps. One was just back from a combat deployment in Afghanistan, the other was about to go, and Dingell wanted to know whether they were getting the training and equipment they needed. Needless to say, there would have been some nervous generals in the Pentagon that Saturday night had they known of that conversation and its candor.
In the old days, before the current, centralized command-and-control system, with power largely concentrated in the leadership, the barons of Capitol Hill ruled. These barons — formidable individuals like Dingell, Ways and Means Committee Chairmen Wilbur Mills and Danny Rostenkowski, and Senate Finance Committee chairmen like Russell Long and Bob Dole — not only dominated their fields but also had an intimate understanding of the issues in their purview, notably at levels that few staffers have reached today.
Listening to Dingell talk about his time in and around Congress is remarkable. When you hear Dingell recount the day when, as a page at age 15, sitting in the House gallery on Dec. 8, 1941, he was assigned to watch over a radio broadcaster recording President Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Japan, you are listening to living history. The young page was told to make sure the reporter turned off his tape recorder as soon as FDR completed his speech. Sensing history in the making, John let the recorder run for a couple of minutes, making a record (which still exists) of pacifistic Rep. Jeannette Rankin, R-Mont., vainly seeking recognition to speak out. As a freshman elected in 1916, she was one of 50 members to vote against entering World War I, losing her seat in 1918. Rankin was elected again in 1940, just in time to vote against entering World War II; she was the only member to do so, and she lost reelection the following year. Dingell also tells of how he and other pages kept shotguns in their lockers in the Capitol basement, so that they could go bird hunting after work. We can’t even fathom the way Capitol Hill used to be; John Dingell has lived through it.
They are not making people like Dingell anymore. In the current political climate, one could argue that even the powerhouse legislators of the past would have a hard time wielding the kind of influence they once had.
Within days of Dingell’s retirement announcement, his wife, Debbie Dingell, 59, whom he almost invariably refers to as “the Lovely Deborah,” announced her candidacy for his 12th District seat. Her style differs somewhat from her husband’s, but Debbie Dingell is just as tenacious and is not someone to be underestimated.
Though change is constant and inevitable, John Dingell’s departure from the House next January will truly mark the end of an era, a time that included Congress at its apex of influence.
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