Rep. John D. Dingell’s days seemed numbered. Confined to a wheelchair after knee replacement surgery, the Michigan Democrat wore sweat pants and could barely stand. He was on the verge of losing his coveted chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, in part because he was so close to the Big Three automakers.
He rolled out of the House speaker’s conference room on that 2008 day to a throng of reporters asking about the latest talks regarding a potential bailout for GM and Chrysler. “Anyone want to ask about John Dingell’s job? He has it. He’s going to keep it. He’s doing well,” Dingell said in his standard gruff tone.
Nearly five years later, Dingell, 86, still has his job. And on Friday he will make history for having had his job longer than any other member of Congress in the history of the republic: 57 years, five months and 26 days. That eclipses the late Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who served in both the House and Senate.
Elected in 1955 — the year Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus, when a stamp cost three cents and the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series — Dingell has become synonymous with the House of Representatives in the way that Byrd became synonymous with the Senate after more than 50 years in the so-called upper chamber.
Dingell could never be bothered with the Senate. He is, love him or loathe him, an institution within the institution of the House. Combined with his father’s House service, the family has represented Michigan almost continuously for the past 80 years.
His imprint is on most key legislation of the past five decades, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. He presided over the House as it created Medicare in 1965 and over a portion of the debate in 2010 that led to President Obama’s health-care law, lending the gavel he used in 1965 to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to hammer the vote shut.
“He’s on everybody’s Top 10 list” of all-time House members, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the current Energy and Commerce chairman and a longtime Dingell friend, said this week. “I found out early on, it’s better to have him with you than against you.”
In honor of his historic tenure, Dingell is taking a victory lap demonstrating that, while his body may not be the same, his wit is as sharp as ever. After a round of interviews with his hometown news media, he traded jokes this week with Stephen Colbert on his Comedy Central show.
“You’ve been in Congress longer than Hawaii has had a congressman,” Colbert quipped.
“And Alaska,” Dingell deadpanned.
Next week House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Pelosi, the minority leader, will fete him in a grand ceremony in Statuary Hall.
The speeches are certain to focus on Dingell as a bridge to the bygone era of committee chairmen as Washington’s ultimate power brokers, with Dingell arguably the last true power baron wielding a gavel. House speakers were important, but chairmen were the engines that powered the congressional gears.
Administration officials, regardless of which party held the White House, lived in fear of Dingell. “People were clearly afraid of coming before the Dingell oversight committee,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a longtime friend, told reporters this week.
Dingell did not suffer fools and ran his Rayburn Office Building committee room as his fiefdom. When Upton, now 60, was a young budget staffer in the Reagan White House, he said he quaked every time the mail brought a “Dingellgram.” Now, Upton tries to mimic Dingell’s tough, fear-inspiring tone when his committee sends out oversight letters.
Former congressman and New Jersey governor James Florio (D-N.J.) often found himself on the losing end of votes to toughen Superfund laws in the subcommittee that he chaired, all because Dingell opposed such measures. Eventually, Dingell grew tired of Florio’s work and simply abolished the subcommittee.
Even in the minority from 1995 to 2007, Dingell wielded influence. As Republicans began drafting a bill to provide seniors with prescription drug coverage in 2003, Dingell told them to invite him to the talks even though he probably would not support the final bill.
“It's better to have me in the tent urinating out than outside the tent urinating in," Dingell told them, according to the GOP recounting with National Public Radio, paraphrasing an old Lyndon Baines Johnson remark. (Given the sometimes salty language Dingell uses in private, acquired during his stint as an Army lieutenant in the latter part of World War II, he probably used a few coarser words with Republicans.)
Dingell’s rough-and-tumble persona created a fair share of enemies, particularly within his own party.
A onetime board member of the National Rifle Association, he opposed most gun-control efforts over the decades, and he resisted many efforts at reining in car emissions to protect his state’s auto industry from regulations that might cut jobs. His alumni network is as deep and powerful as any on K Street, a badge of honor for his former aides but also a sore spot among ethics watchdogs monitoring lobbyists’ ties to Congress.
Through the decades, Dingell ran up against the growing clout of coastal liberals who came to dominate the Democratic caucus, particularly Californians such as Pelosi. They wanted tougher emission limits and later advanced a cap-and-trade system opposed by auto manufacturers and coal plants throughout the Midwest.
After redistricting in 2002, Dingell was forced into a race against Rep. Lynn Rivers (D), a liberal with Pelosi’s backing. The race split the caucus along ideological lines, but Dingell waged a modern campaign and won.
Within days of President Obama’s election in 2008, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally, moved against Dingell for the chairmanship of the committee with the broadest jurisdiction of any in Congress. In the closed-door caucus meeting, Dingell was in a wheelchair and sweat pants, looking like the past, as younger Democrats argued that he was slow to confront climate change.
He lost the vote, and a collection of staffers and former staffers assembled in a committee meeting room on the third floor of Rayburn. Upton, uninvited, barged in to pay tribute to his friend. As others grew emotional, Dingell played the calm role, Upton recalled.
“Don’t cry for me,” he told the assembled crowd.
Out of power, he seemed destined to retire. Instead, he returned to the life of a rank-and-file lawmaker, doing his committee work and weighing in with advice when others asked for it. He worked to save the auto industry and teamed with Upton on a pipeline safety bill.
He won’t say whether he will seek reelection next year, but he and his wife, Debbie, are still a presence in his hometown of Dearborn. Some wanted Debbie Dingell to run for the Senate in 2014, a race she passed on, but confidants suggest John Dingell was indifferent — because his home remains the House.
“If I were in parliament,” he told Colbert, “I’d be called the ‘father’ of the House.”