Dingells and GM illustrate limits of congressional conflict-of-interest rules
Monday, January 11, 2010
They met in the first-class cabin on a bumpy flight between Detroit and Washington, a gruff lion of a lawmaker from Michigan and a young lobbyist for General Motors, granddaughter of one of the company's pioneer executives.
Rep. John D. Dingell Jr. (D), then 55 and one of the most powerful men in the country, usually did not talk to seatmates. He made an exception for Debbie Insley because she was a white-knuckle flier nervous about the turbulence. Despite their 27-year age difference, they hit it off, and in 1981 she became his second wife.
Their union brought together very divergent interests: the lawmaker's obligation to craft legislation that serves the public and his wife's financial dependency on an industry whose fortunes were directly affected by Congress. The Dingells have always been open about their relationship, and the evidence is that they have always complied with the rules. But the mere existence of such a conflict resonates at a time of close ethical scrutiny on Wall Street, in government and elsewhere.
The couple accumulated millions in GM holdings in the early 2000s through Debbie Dingell's job, by far the largest portion of the family's personal wealth, public records show. At the same time, John Dingell was Detroit's staunchest ally, fighting against emissions and fuel-economy standards that could have hurt the short-term profitability of automakers. In the past year, he advocated for five bailouts for GM and Chrysler.
"I was fighting for autoworkers long before I met Deborah," he said. "The fact is that I am not married to the auto industry, but I am elected to represent the people of Michigan and in our part of the country. My people live and die by the success of the auto industry and manufacturing."
Although Dingell has one of the starkest conflicts in Congress, he is not alone. Congressional stock ownership has soared over the past two decades. To prevent economic collapse over the past year, Congress has staged an unprecedented intervention in the private sector, meaning more and more lawmakers are voting on measures that could affect their personal wealth. For example, the government today owns 60 percent of GM.
Yet the ethics system on Capitol Hill requires little more than annual public disclosure of financial assets and transactions. And it allows lawmakers to largely police themselves and to decide whether their investments pose conflicts.
Dingell, now 83 and the longest-serving member of the House, said he handles conflicts by following his conscience, informed by the lessons from his father and from the tough-minded Jesuits who mentored him in high school.
He and his wife say they scrupulously follow ethics rules and do the right thing even when it harms their financial status, including taking avoidable losses in their GM stock last year as the company spiraled toward bankruptcy.
"I am extremely paranoid and I am careful," Debbie Dingell said in an interview. "Spouses have no official standing on the Hill, but we face enormous scrutiny."
But some environmentalists and government watchdog groups say the current system fails both the Dingells and the voters.
"The Dingell family is receiving a very healthy salary from a company he is expected to regulate," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which has led efforts to pass most of the modern-day congressional ethics reform laws. "It's a very serious conflict of interest. Just telling people about the conflict, through financial disclosure, is not sufficient."