It is Congressional primary day for five states in the US, and the final dash for votes in the mid-terms is hotting up against a backdrop of government shutdowns, threats to sue the President, refusals to work together, and a battle for the heart of the Republican Party. It is indeed an intriguing period of US Congressional history. There is however one story that threatens to go unnoticed this election season; the retirement of 58 year veteran of the House, Rep.John Dingell (D-Dearborn, MI).
Dingell is the longest uninterrupted serving member of the US Congress in its 225 year history, with a tenure spanning more than a quarter of its entire history. It is an incredible achievement and one in which the Congressman from Michigan has witnessed the shaping of the United States in ways in which no other Congressman can claim.
As a teenager in 1941, and a member of the United States House of Representatives Page programme, Dingell was on the floor of the House as President Roosevelt delivered his day of infamy speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was later elected to Congress in 1956 – the year the World first heard the name ‘Elvis Presley’, and the Federal Highway Act had not yet been signed into being – and has consistently attained over 60% of the vote – with the exception of just two occasions. He was a member of Congress on that day in November when two bullets struck down the promise of President Kennedy. He was sworn into Congress 12 days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, challenging the poisonous white supremacist attitudes of the 20th Century United States, and announced his retirement from Congress during the second term of the nation’s first African American President. He supported, witnessed and presided over the House that saw LBJ signing Medicare into law. His tenure saw the rise and fall of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, the Reagan years, and both Iraq wars. In recent years, Dingell sat next to President Obama as the ‘Affordable Healthcare Act’ was signed into law in 2010, an achievement Dingell was proud to have been a part of, despite not meeting his desire to see universal healthcare in the United States; a cause he had championed by introducing a universal healthcare bill in each of his terms in Congress.
Son of a ‘New Deal’ Democratic Congressman, Dingell is known to be forceful and intimidating in the corridors of Congress. But he gets the job done. Perhaps Dingell’s greatest legislative achievements have been in promoting environmental protections and regulations, cleaning the air and the water and protecting species in the United States, whilst paradoxically commanding the scorn of environmentalists for his staunch support of the Detroit auto industry (including steerage of the 2009 bailouts). In 1972, Dingell authored the ‘Clean Water Act’ expanding greatly the regulatory framework of the 1948 ‘Federal Water Pollution Control Act’, keeping the waters of the United States clean for decades to come. He played important roles in the ‘National Energy Conservation Policy Act’ in 1978, the ‘Marine Mammal Protection Act’ and the ‘Pollution Prevention Act’ of 1990. He penned the ‘Endangered Species Act’, and he advocated and lobbied for the creation of the ‘Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge’; North America’s only international wildlife refuge. He also spent 14 years as Chair of the immensely powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, between 1981-1994, and again in 2007-2008. Without Dingell, the foundation of environmental protections in the United States might not exist. Indeed, for his work on environmental issues in the 109th Congress, The League of Conservation Voters gave Dingell a rating of 100%.
However, there remains a paradox. Dingell’s place as top-ranking Democrat on the Energy Committee took an odd turn in recent years, when Henry Waxman (D-Calif) challenged and beat Dingell for the chairmanship of the committee, through concerns that Dingell’s financial support from big auto industry – along with previous attempts to defend big auto industry in Detroit from certain sections of environmental legislation – may prove detrimental to Waxman’s desire to cap CO2 emissions. In 2007, Dingell managed to win several – albeit small – concessions for the auto-industry as Democrats worked to raise the fuel economy standard.
Alongside his defence and protection of the auto-industry, Dingell receives criticism from fellow progressive Democrats for his A+ rating from the NRA. It was Dingell who managed to gain an exemption for firearms from the 1972 ‘Consumer Product Safety Act’. A hugely damaging legacy for gun safety in the United States. Following the Columbine massacre the Senate voted to close a loophole that exempted unlicensed gun dealers from conducting any background checks at gun shows before selling a firearm. Dingell disapproved and offered an alternative that included changing the language for what is to be considered a ‘gun show’ to a very limited scope, and reducing the time taken to perform a background check from 72 hours, to 24 hours.
To some, he was a protector of big auto-industry whose ideas ran out long ago, a roadblock to meaningful emissions standards, a staunch advocate of gun ownership, and an advertisement for term limits, but to others he was the Congressional architect of landmark environmental protections that would last decades, a legacy that no other member of Congress comes close to matching. Whatever one may think of Rep. John Dingell, it is hard not to admire a man who has worked at the heart of, and contributed to the shaping of the United States, swimming the murky waters of Congress, and witnessing the transformation of America on so many levels, for close to seven decades. His is a story to be remembered during this election season.