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.”