Veteran lawmakers call time on serving in ‘obnoxious’ US Congress
America Letter: traditional solutions are not succeeding in overcoming wide Congress’s ideological divisions
John Dingell with his wife, Deborah. “I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he told his local newspaper. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.” Photograph: Reuters/Rebecca Cook
John Dingell, the 87-year- old US politician, joked on Monday that at his age he doesn’t buy green bananas – he’s unsure whether he will be around long enough to eat them ripened.
The Democrat from Michigan, known in Washington DC as “Big John” because of his 6ft3in frame, made the gag at a chamber of commerce luncheon near Detroit at which he announced he would not try to extend what is already the longest US congressional career in history.
Dingell has an extraordinary career of public service behind him. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1955 and has served a record 29 political terms over 59 years. He became the longest-serving member of Congress last June, beating the record held by the late West Virginia senator Robert Byrd.
The longevity of this congressional lion is best recognised by some of the historical events he witnessed. As a congressional page he watched president Franklin D Roosevelt ask a joint session of Congress to declare war against Japan in his “Day of infamy” speech after the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. As a congressman, Dingell saw 10 presidents enter and leave the White House.
He championed landmark liberal legislative victories over six decades, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the creation of Medicare social insurance for the elderly in 1965, the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act and Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act introducing universal healthcare, a career goal pursued by him and his father, whom he succeeded in Congress. He supported clear air legislation but only to the point where it would not damage the auto industry, a big employer in his constituency. For this he earned the nickname “Mr Auto”.
As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, initially from 1981 to 1995, he made the panel one of the most far-reaching in Congress. The committee was responsible at one point for processing one in every five Bills passing through the House. A photograph of the Earth from space sat behind his desk; when asked to describe the extent of the committee’s jurisdiction, he’d point to it.
During his career Dingell has also witnessed Washington’s descent from productive, far-sighted lawmaking through bipartisan deals with opponents on the other side of the political aisle to the recent paralysis of partisan gridlock created by ideological divisions and the House’s short-sighted two-year election cycles that force politicians to spend more time soliciting donors than creating legislation.
Still sharp mentally but physically weak, Dingell said he didn’t want to be “going out feet first” or doing a “less than adequate job”. Unlike the other members of Congress who recently announced their retirements Dingell couldn’t hide his frustration at the toxic atmosphere that has fallen on US politics. “I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he told his local paper, the Detroit News . “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”
With just nine months to go to the 2014 midterm elections to determine which party controls the House and Senate, members of Congress have, like Dingell, had to reveal their future plans. The number of retirements – 21 in the House and six in the Senate – is not unusual but the type of politician leaving is. All told, the latest crop of retirees has served a remarkable 157 electoral terms in office.
“The quantity of those leaving is not greater than before – it is the quality of those retiring,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “We are not just losing the senior ones; we are losing the problem-solvers.”
Dingell, along with two other long-serving House Democrats, Henry Waxman and George Miller, both from California, have served 70 terms between them and leave with almost 140 years of congressional experience. Waxman is 74 and Miller is 68 but, based on the benchmark set by Dingell, could have many more terms ahead of them.
Bitter divisions between the parties, the inability of either tribe to find agreement and angry confrontations with venting constituents at town hall meetings have created an environment where veteran lawmakers seasoned in the art of political compromise are saying that it is time to leave.
“When John Dingell said that Congress these days is obnoxious he captured in one word the feeling of how much the minority feel that the institution has changed from when it had much more comity and civility, and you could reach out and work with the other party,” said James Thurber, a politics professor at American University in Washington. Congress is deadlocked and ideologically split with no one in the middle.
“I don’t see it changing until we change the way we re-district in the House of Representatives and a whole new generation gets in and becomes institution builders. I don’t see this in the near future.”