John Dingell: five must-knows about the longest-serving member of Congress

Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan announced Monday he'll retire at the end of this term. He will exit as one of America’s most powerful legislators, and his departure will mark the end of an era on Capitol Hill.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 4, 2013. Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress, announced Monday he'll retire at the end of this term.

When Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan was first elected to Congress in 1955, Dwight Eisenhower was president, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become states, and Ford Motor Co. – which is headquartered in Mr. Dingell’s district – had its first full year of producing the iconic Thunderbird. On Monday, the longest-serving member of Congress in US history announced he’ll retire at the end of this term. He will exit as one of the nation’s most powerful and productive legislators, and his departure will mark the end of an era on Capitol Hill.

Here are five “must knows” about the Dearborn, Mich., Democrat:

1. Call him “Mr. Auto.” Dingell is a fierce defender of the auto industry: He has represented the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which was home to a Ford factory that was once the largest in the world, according to the Associated Press. In December 2008, when the US economy was tanking, he played a key role in crafting the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler (a $13.4 billion package of short-term loans for the auto industry).  

One of his biggest legislative battles occurred the year before, when he opposed higher fuel efficiency standards – standards that he had supported in the 1970s. He also sided with organized labor against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

2. He champions autos ... and the outdoors. Despite his hard negotiations on fuel efficiency standards, Dingell is a strong conservationist, stemming in part from his love of the outdoors, especially fishing and hunting. (The head of a 500-pound wild boar that he reportedly shot in Soviet Georgia hangs in his Washington office.)

He helped write the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and played a key role in the Clean Water Act of 1972. After a decade of tussling over air standards with Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, a rival of sorts, he worked with Mr. Waxman to produce the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

One of the achievements that Dingell is proudest of is the 2001 creation of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which has grown from nearly 400 acres to more than 5,000.

3. He’s been a tenacious fighter for universal health care. Dingell worked hard on Medicare for seniors and presided over the vote for the landmark legislation on the House floor in 1965. When the 2010 Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) faced resistance from conservative “Blue Dog Democrats,” he stepped in to negotiate.

His lifelong commitment to health care is a family affair. Dingell’s father, who held the same House seat for 22 years and died in office, doggedly pursued universal health care (the senior Dingell, a “New Deal” Democrat, also sponsored Social Security). Like his father, the younger Dingell introduced a universal health-care bill in every Congress – until the passage of the ACA. He keeps the gavel from the Medicare vote on display, in honor of his father, who helped write the bill.

4. Beware the “Dingellgram.” As the former chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and also of its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, this feisty politician put the “over” in “oversight.” His penetrating questions at hearings and his strongly worded letters to administration officials of both parties, known as “Dingellgrams,” are legendary in Washington.

During the Reagan administration, his requests for information triggered the investigation of former White House official Michael Deaver over lobbying. The chairman’s demands for subpoenas caused Environmental Protection Agency head Anne Burford to resign in 1983, and another EPA official to be convicted. Remember the $640 toilet seats that the Pentagon paid for in the 1980s, or the dog-kennel boarding and country-club dues that General Dynamics charged to the Defense Department? It was Dingell’s subcommittee that uncovered all that.

5. Call it the end of an era. As the longest-serving member of Congress, Dingell caps what you could say has been an era of congressional lions. A slew of longtime lawmakers from both parties have announced their retirements this year, including, in the House, Democrats Waxman (who wrestled the Energy and Commerce chairmanship from Dingell) and George Miller of California and Republicans Buck McKeon, also of California; Spencer Bachus of Alabama; and Frank Wolf of Virginia. On the Senate side, Democrats Carl Levin, also of Michigan; Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia; and Tom Harkin of Iowa are moving on after many years.

It’s not just people, but ways that are changing – from a time when committees ground out legislation under powerful chairmen such as Dingell (his committee at one point handled up to 40 percent of all House legislation) to a time when much legislation takes shape in the offices of the majority leaders on the Hill. Dingell says health is one reason for his decision, but so, too, is the increased partisanship on the Hill – a factor cited by other retirees. Dingell may hold strong views, but he also is a dealmaker, and that’s harder and harder to be these days.

“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he told The Detroit News. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”

For the next street fight – Dingell’s seat – Democrats need not worry. This one is safe for their party, and perhaps for the Dingell family. It’s widely expected that his wife, Debbie, will run.

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