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Dingell Is Longest-Serving House Member

Former president Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) honor the many years of service by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), right.
Former president Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) honor the many years of service by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), right. (By Jonathan Ernst -- Getty Images)

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) today becomes the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives in history, but his honor comes just as his colleagues have effectively declared that his time of grand power has passed.

As he eclipses the 53-year-and-two-month tenure of former congressman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), Dingell's 19,420-day career representing the western suburbs of Detroit has been remarkable not just in length but also in accomplishments. The 82-year-old held the gavel in 1965 when the House passed the legislation that created Medicare, he helped write the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and he led dozens of investigations into waste and abuse in federal agencies.

But the onetime chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who is known for pointing to a satellite picture of Earth when asked about his committee's jurisdiction, is no longer the giant on Capitol Hill that he was. After the election last fall, House Democrats dumped Dingell as chairman of Energy and Commerce, where he had been the top Democrat for almost three decades. The fear was that Dingell would not act quickly to push through environmental legislation that could hurt the Detroit automakers he has long represented.

"He has represented Detroit, but he is out of touch with the country on this issue," said former congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who added that Dingell's tenure "would go down in history as not only one of the longest but also one of the most dedicated."

In an interview yesterday, a relaxed Dingell brushed aside his loss of the chairmanship.

"One day you're up; one day you're down," he said in his Capitol Hill office, which is decorated with a mounted Florida marlin, deer and elk heads from his hunting trips and a copy of the Clean Air Act. "I'll be up again, don't worry. And I'll find things to do."

This recent tension was ignored at a celebration yesterday for Dingell at Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill. Even though some of her closest allies in Congress ran the campaign against Dingell last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) organized the event and praised him repeatedly in a speech, as did former president Bill Clinton.

"John is a great institution within this institution," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) told a crowd of hundreds.

Dingell beamed throughout the event and added that "it's not how long you serve; it's how well you serve."

Dingell's decline in power comes as others of his generation in Congress are heading to the end of their careers. With his combined 56 years in the House and Senate, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 91, has served longer than Dingell. Byrd stepped down as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee last fall.

In Dingell's case, age was not a major factor in the decision to replace him. Some party members thought that 69-year-old Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), known for his aggressive investigations of the Bush administration in his previous chairmanship, might be a stronger figure to lead the committee.

The biggest change Dingell has faced is a Washington more skeptical than ever of the Detroit auto companies he has spent his life defending. The Democratic majority in Congress, once full of members from manufacturing cities such as Detroit, now includes a strong cohort from California, pushing for manufacturers to make more environmentally friendly cars.

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