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Dingell’s Health Care Legacy (and a Few Things You Probably Didn’t Know)

SOUTHGATE, MI - FEBRUARY 24: U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) , 87, the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history, announces his retirement at a luncheon February 24, 2014 in Southgate, Michigan. Dingell began serving in Congress in 1955, taking over the seat his father vacated. 
National Journal
Mike Magner
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Mike Magner
Feb. 24, 2014, 5 p.m.

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.

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.”

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