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John Dingell: Congress is broken, but it doesn’t have to be

U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and his wife, Debbie, at a legislative forum at the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber in Southgate, Mich., on Feb. 24, 2014.  (Max Ortiz/Detroit News  via AP)

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House, has a few ideas about how Capitol Hill could function more productively.

His tenure has seen 11 presidents, hundreds of members of Congress and, as Dingell described it: "... the privilege of watching Washington change from a little town in the woods into a major city of international proportions."

But as he prepares to leave office later this year, Dingell let loose during an event at the National Press Club, declaring that Congress is broken and unproductive — and that it hasn't always been and doesn't need to be this way.

"This is not a Congress that is working. But it could be. And frankly, it should be," Dingell said.

Here are some highlights of Dingell's hour-long talk and Q&A.

On the Supreme Court and Citizens United:

Dingell leveled some of his harshest criticism at the Supreme Court, specifically with regard to the 2011 Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited spending by Super PACs, prompting a flood of money in congressional races.

"Any layman reading the Citizens United decision will assume that surely this was no way written by a group of intelligent individuals," Dingell declared. "Or people even remotely aware of what is going on in our current political structure."

Dingell said that by taking extremely literal stances in the Citizens United and other cases, the Supreme Court has allowed millions of dollars to flow into political races, which he said will have dire consequences for democracy.

Later in the event, Dingell was asked about his "less than kind" comments about the high court.

"I thought they were quite kind, as a matter of fact," Dingell quipped.

On congressional committees:

Dingell traced much of the congressional inactively to the size of congressional committees and sub-committees. He recalled serving on three- and four-member committees decades ago. Now, he said, too many committees number into the hundreds.

"The committees are too large, and should be shrunk," he said.

On Obama:

"He didn't get us into Iraq. He wasn't involved in Watergate. He's run a pretty honest administration."

On his wife's campaign for his seat:

On his fellow members of Congress: Dingell expressed frustration that many of those who now run for Congress do so, seemingly, in order to gain fame and recognition, and that not many are willing to put in the time to truly amass influence on the Hill. "It's become, in too many instances, a money chase," Dingell said. "An instance where it is the goal of members to have the name of a committee on their letterhead."

Among the factors driving this is the no-tax pledge championed by Grover Norquist, Dingell said. "We also have many in Congress who wish to do nothing more than shrink the size and scope of the federal government," Dingell said. "As redistricting creates more and more safe seats, we see members more focused on winning primaries and not about the public interest. ... There is no incentive to stick one's neck out and to compromise."

Much of the speech called for compromise and bipartisanship, but Dingell acknowledged that there seems to be little chance of actually achieving that kind of harmony between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. "Some kind of national event which forced the members and the leadership to do that," Dingell said, when asked what, if anything, could resurrect a spirit of bipartisanship. "But beyond that ... a wiping out of almost all of the entire membership by seeing to it that the voters threw us all the hell out of Washington and installed their own people in our place."

Advice to reporters:


Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

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