Partisan Politics Have Convinced Longest-Serving Congressman to Retire
Rep. John D. Dingell, the 87-year-old Michigan Democrat who represented districts including both Detroit and Dearborn over the course of his career, announced on Monday that he will not seek reelection after the end of his current term.
After winning a special election at 29, he entered the House of Representatives in 1955, filling the seat left open by his father’s death. Dingell spent the next 59 years in Congress, winning another 29 elections, taking on the symbolic role of dean of the House in 1995, and serving as the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for 16 years. In total, he has served under 11 presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama. June saw the passage of his 20,997th day as a U.S. representative, making him the longest-serving member of Congress. Previously, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, held the record.
“There’s little doubt that John Dingell is one of the most consequential members of Congress in the last century,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told the Detroit Free Press. “He’s been involved — and in a significant way — in virtually every major social policy advance or chance in [America] since at least the 1960s.” In Washington, Dingell was known as “Big John,” and while the name ostensibly came from his great height, his deep involvement in the political process can also explain the nickname.
Dingell’s tenure was historic not only for its length but for his vocal support of progressive causes like workers’ rights. He voted in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and he considers that ballot the most important in his entire career. Since his election in 1955, he has cast more than 10,000 votes and written parts of — or at least helped to approve — a number of the most important pieces of legislation of the last six decades, from the Affordable Care Act to the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts to Medicare, the government-funded health program for seniors.
The gavel used during the passage of Medicare — over which he presided — still sits on Dingell’s desk. Like his father, the representative has been a strong proponent of universal health care. At the beginning of each session of Congress, his father would introduce his proposal for national health care legislation, and Dingell himself voted in favor of the health care reform championed by President Barack Obama.
In a press release issued on July 30, the 48th anniversary of the passage of Medicare, Dingell described the Affordable Care Act as the ideological heir of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s package of “Great Society” reforms. “This core belief and goal — to make affordable health care a right and not a privilege — is the very same one that my proud father held dear when he helped author Social Security,” he said. “I helped advance that goal in overseeing passage of both Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. I’m proud to mark today’s anniversary by continuing to advocate for the core beliefs that have made — and will continue to make — our nation great.”
In an opinion column published in U.S.News and World Report, political analyst Michael Barone wrote of Dingell in 2002: “There is something grand about the range of Dingell’s experience and about his adherence to his philosophy over a very long career. He is an old-fashioned social Democrat who knows that most voters don’t agree with his goals of a single-payer national health insurance plan but presses forward toward that goal as far as he can.” Continuing, Barone wrote, “whether you agree or disagree, the social Democratic tradition is one of the great traditions in our history, and John Dingell has fought for it for a very long time.”
Among his accomplishments is Dingell’s defense of his district’s main industry: the production of automobiles. While his position put him in opposition to environmentalists, the Michigan representative argued against, voted against, and pushed for more moderate versions of legislation regarding air pollution and safety, regulations he believed could burden the auto industry. There is speculation that Dingell’s wife, Deborah — who is has served as an auto industry executive — may run for his seat.
He is also a staunch supporter of gun rights and once sat on the board of the National Rifle Association.
While Dingell’s 6-foot, 3-inch frame is stooped and he moves around with the help of a cane or a motorized scooter, his retirement has little to do with his age. Rather, it is the slow death of bipartisan politics that has prompted the representative to give up his seat. His stances on political issues may make him a progressive, but when the time has come to pass legislation, he has positioned himself as a centrist.
With his erudite manner, Dingell has always looked for politicians of either party to count on as allies. But, as he wrote in a statement announcing his intention not to seek reelection, too many officials “have refused to carry out their duty to the country, to each other, and to all of us, past, present, and future.” Passing only 57 bills into law, this Congress has been a disappointment to everyone: its members, media, citizens, and our country, he said. Dingell believes political gridlock is dangerous for the United States.
“The Congress must live up to its name. It must be a great coming together of our people. We did temporarily avoid sequestration, as my colleagues and the country found that it was just too nasty for our government not to act,” said Dingell. “There is so much to be said for our beloved country, and at times we need to bring ourselves back on the path to greatness that the United States shared for centuries. It is my belief that that is precisely what must be done to continue our economic recovery and move our country forward.
“There will be much blaming and finger pointing back and forth, but the Members share fault, much fault; the people share much fault, for encouraging a disregard of our country, our Congress, and our governmental system.”
Several other high-ranking Democrats have also announced decisions to forgo bids for reelection, including Reps. George Miller and Henry A. Waxman, both of California. Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has 35 years of experience, is also retiring.
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