The End of an Era in Congress

They just aren’t making lawmakers — or people — like John Dingell anymore.

Representative John Dingell (D-MI) sits after listening to US President Barack Obama make a statement in the East Room of the White House July 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke about the Affordable Care Act. 
AFP/Getty Images
Charlie Cook
March 6, 2014, 4 p.m.

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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