In his more than 58 years in Congress, John Dingell has never been known to mince words. So it was no surprise that the 87-year-old Michigan Democrat announced his departure with a characteristically acerbic bang.
“This Congress has been a great disappointment to everyone, members, media, citizens and our country,” said Dingell, who has served longer than any member in the history of either chamber. “Little has been done in this Congress, with 57 bills passed into law.”
Dingell was even more biting in a pre-announcement interview with the Detroit News. “I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he said. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”
These are amazing words, because Dingell loves the House — “this nonfunctional, dysfunctional place,” as he described it in a telephone interview Tuesday. He literally grew up there; his father, John Sr., was elected in 1932. Fifteen-year-old John, then a congressional page, was on the House floor in December 1941 for Franklin Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech.
When his father died in 1955, 29-year-old John ran in the special election to succeed him. A Dingell has represented Michigan in the House for more than eight decades, and could be for decades more: Dingell’s wife Deborah, a Democratic powerhouse in her own right, may run.
Dingell’s announcement completes a trio of Democratic House giants leaving at the end of the 113th Congress. George Miller of California, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is leaving after 40 years. So is Miller’s fellow California liberal, Henry Waxman, along with Miller the last of the class of 1974 “Watergate babies” to have served continuously in the House.
And now Dingell, who soldiered on after Waxman ousted him from his cherished chairmanship of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in 2008.
Combined, these departures signify a tectonic shift in the House Democratic landscape. They represent a tacit acknowledgment of Democrats’ slim chance of regaining the majority and — denials notwithstanding — of bipartisan frustration with an increasingly ungovernable, unproductive Congress.
“I wouldn’t bring the 10 Commandments up for fear they would get voted down,” Dingell said last year — comments echoed by House Speaker John Boehner’s tart impatience with his own unruly caucus. “Mother Teresa is a saint now,” an exasperated Boehner said earlier this month, “but if Congress wanted to make her a saint, and attach that to the debt ceiling, we probably couldn’t get 218 votes for it.”
And that is the most troubling message of the announced retirements. Congress, as Dingell noted, “means ‘a coming together.’ ” But that technical definition is ever more divorced from anarchic political reality. Miller, Waxman and Dingell were, literally, lawmakers — legislators who painstakingly cobbled together the coalitions necessary to enact laws governing everything from clean air to education reform, tobacco regulation to health care, civil rights to telecommunications.
Such efforts feel tragically anachronistic. The current House, and the current Republican Party, is more about dismantling and blocking than creating. Dingell himself leaped on my suggestion that there is a lost art of legislating, yet he dated the problem to well before the emergence of the tea party as a political force.
“The place got meaner than hell when [Tom] DeLay and [Newt] Gingrich came in” during the 1990s, he said. “It was awful.” When Gingrich wrested power from committee chairmen and centralized it in the speaker’s office, Dingell added, “all of a sudden, the place ground to a halt.” The tea party, in this assessment, is the unpalatable icing on an already distasteful cake.
In part, this phenomenon represents an inevitable byproduct of differing philosophies of government. Democrats tend to want more; Republican less, especially since the rise of the tea party. It also reflects the constitutional role of an opposition party in checking presidential designs. And not all Republicans would take a wrecking ball to government, and governing. Witness House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp’s diligent work on revamping the tax code.
Nor are Democrats innocent of choosing partisan gamesmanship over sincere legislating. See Politico’s report that Democratic staffers, anticipating the release of Camp’s plan, “emphasized that they shouldn’t criticize the tax reform bill but, rather, allow Republicans to trip all over themselves.” How sad is that?
Even sadder is the lesson of the Miller, Waxman and Dingell departures: The era of lawmakers has given way to an age of law-stoppers. When Congress regains an appetite for legislating, will anyone be around who remembers how?