Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), the longest serving member of Congress in history (59 years), did much good and much bad. Reports of his retirement stressed his work in championing Medicare, civil rights legislation, and several environmental laws. Less noticed was his vigorous oversight and investigations of federal departments and agencies that were lax, riven with conflicts of interest, or mistreated whistle-blowers.
But Dingell had another, darker side to his otherwise liberal image. He was totally and cruelly indentured to the auto industry even though he was from an overwhelmingly safe Democratic district. More than any other lawmaker, Democratic or Republican, he fought to make sure that the auto Goliaths got their way in Congress and at the EPA and the Department of Transportation.
I observed his tenacity in delaying the issuance of the life-saving airbag standard, in opposing noxious emission controls on motor vehicles and, most irrationally, in freezing fuel-efficiency rules for many years. He did this with sheer stubborn willpower and by forging a mutually destructive alliance between the Big Three auto companies – GM, Ford, and Chrysler –and the United Auto Workers (UAW).
In the greatest ironies of his lengthy career, he helped mightily in sheltering the technological stagnation of Detroit’s auto barons from innovation-advancing regulation that eventually cost them massive market share to more fuel efficient and higher quality foreign imports from Germany and Japan. This also cost the UAW tens of thousands of jobs.
When, in recent years, the domestic auto industry’s demise was finally clear to him, he began to relent on fuel efficiency but it was too late to save the industry from its own mismanagement and illusions.
The resultant impact on the health and safety of the American people was his most lasting devastating legacy. Year after year people breathed more vehicle emissions and lost their lives or were injured in less safe vehicles because of Mr. Dingell’s huge presence on Capitol Hill. He upset the balance in his Party and thereby made his Republican colleagues more powerful in their opposition to updating health and safety rules.
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At his retirement announcement, Mr. Dingell described service in the Congress these days as “obnoxious” because of “the acrimony and the bitterness,” and the lack of productivity. Back in the 1970s and after he took over the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee in 1981 from the retiring great Congressman John Moss (D-CA), I and other consumer advocates experienced his “obnoxious” and exclusionary dictatorial regime laced with exceedingly foul language directed to anyone who dared criticize him from the civic community.
Congressman Dingell knows politics, however. He is keeping his seat in the family. His wife Deborah Dingell will announce her candidacy to replace him very shortly and is considered a shoo-in. At age 60, she could complete a full century of Dingells by 2033 – John Dingell’s father, a New Deal liberal and advocate of universal Medicare, was elected in 1933.
Deborah Dingell, a former GM lobbyist, is an irreverent soul, even chiding her often grumpy husband at public dinners when he did not hide his disdain for people in attendance. She may surprise us yet by tying her experience in politics, her contacts with high-ranking Democrats, and her independent personality to some good works.
Asked this week by The Washington Post whether the condition in Congress “is fixable,” he replied fundamentally: “There’s only one person that can fix it, and there’s only one group of people that can answer that question, and that’s the voters. If they want it to change, it will change.”
Yes, Congressman Dingell, it will change, but only if we have a more competitive democracy with more choices of candidates and more voices for the voters. (See www.competitivedemocracy.org and www.ballot-access.org for more information.) Party and candidate dynasties are not compatible with democratic elections.