In Washington, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose—it’s how long you play the game. Witness the reaction last week to the announcement that Michigan congressman John Dingell would make this, his 29th term in the House of Representatives, his last. The 87-year-old Detroit-area Democrat has been a member of Congress since the 1950s, serving alongside 11 presidents, 10 House speakers, and nearly 2,500 different representatives.
“I’m not going to be carried out feet first,” Dingell said about his retirement, but you get the sense some in Washington wish he would stay until the bitter end. Norm Ornstein wrote at the Atlantic that he felt “a real sadness” about Dingell’s departure. “We have not seen many members of Congress, over the entire history of the nation, who have made a mark as broad and enduring as Dingell,” he wrote. Dingell, Ornstein added, is a “giant of the House” and a “master at work.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who also used the term “master,” wistfully referred to Dingell as a “20th-century lawmaker,” an artifact from a bygone and better age of legislating.
His seat was once held by John Dingell Sr., a New Deal Democrat first elected in 1932. When John Sr. died in office in 1955, the 29-year-old John Jr. won the subsequent special election and has held the seat ever since. That’s more than 80 years of uninterrupted Dingelldom. Dingell the younger has continued his father’s tradition of introducing a bill to institute single-payer health care at the beginning of every Congress, and so the dream of the New Deal survives well into this century. David Maraniss, also at the Post, marveled at the longevity of the Dingell dynasty under a headline calling the man’s career “legendary.” “One could say that Dingell outlasted the two institutions he loved most, Congress and Detroit,” wrote Maraniss.
One could also say that’s a scathing indictment of the Dingell era. In 1955, the young Dingell’s first year in office, America’s car industry sold nearly 8.5 million automobiles and Detroit had a population of over 1.8 million. In 2013, Ford and GM combined sold 5.3 million cars, just a few years after GM had filed for bankruptcy. The city of Detroit, meanwhile, has withered to just over 700,000 people, and it too has filed for bankruptcy. Its blight is a manifestation of the failed progressivism Dingell championed in Congress.
As for Congress, Dingell himself says its dysfunction is the reason he’s leaving. Capitol Hill has grown “obnoxious” and sullied by bitter partisanship. “This is not the Congress I know and love,” Dingell said.
It certainly isn’t. Dingell’s House was controlled by Democrats without interruption from 1955 to 1995, and in his heyday he was one of its most powerful members. From 1981 to 1995, Dingell was chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, whose purview extends from energy and consumer protection to health care and telecommunications. Din-gell made a name for himself by using his subpoena power to pursue countless oversight investigations during Republican presidencies.
Some of the revelations from Dingell’s hearings were relatively trivial but entertaining. In a 1985 hearing with executives of defense contractor General Dynamics, Dingell asked about a $155 charge to the government on behalf of a “Mr. Fursten” incurred at Silver Maple Farm. Fursten, it turned out, was an executive’s dog, and the charge was for boarding him while his owner and wife traveled to a ritzy conference in South Carolina. The hearings offered Dingell the chance to grandstand while targeting political opponents and serving allies. One investigation led to the resignation of Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator. Another resulted in the conviction of several FDA officials for accepting favors from manufacturers of generic drugs in exchange for expediting the drugs’ approval. That undoubtedly satisfied the name-brand drug manufacturers who were major contributors to Dingell’s campaign coffers.
The 6-foot-3 Dingell earned a slew of nicknames over his years as chairman: the Grand Inquisitor, the Junkyard Dog, Tailpipe Johnny, Truck, and, of course, Big John. He also earned a reputation as a vindictive bully. In 1987, for instance, Dingell championed the bill to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation’s only nuclear waste depository, which enraged the locals (and still does). Folks on Capitol Hill told the New York Times the move was seen as retribution against Nevada senator Richard Bryan, a fellow Democrat who had pushed to impose tighter fuel standard regulations on the auto industry. If you hurt something Big John loved, he’d return the favor.
The 1995 Republican takeover of the House ended Dingell’s chairmanship, leading many to speculate he would retire. He held on instead and that same year became the dean of the House, a symbolic position reserved for the most senior member, a sort of parting gift at the end of a career. But when Democrats finally won back the House in 2006, Dingell took the helm at Energy and Commerce once more.
Big John’s second reign was brief. In 2009, California rival Henry Waxman successfully challenged him for the chairmanship. At that point, what was left but a place in the record books? Last year, he surpassed the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia for the longest congressional tenure in history.
Dingell stuck around long enough to be remembered not as a partisan attack dog but as Congress’s conscience, protector of the traditions and sensibilities of the people’s house. Yet in these terribly partisan times, the burden of holding the moral high ground has become too much. Which is why his wife, the 60-year-old former auto industry lobbyist Debbie Dingell, has announced she’ll be running for her husband’s (and father-in-law’s) seat. The Dingells, a Washington institution, live on.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.