Lessons learned from John Dingell
Posted on February 12, 2019I once introduced former Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) as “Mr. Chairman” a decade after Republicans had seized the House, at a reception that I was hosting. It caused some grumbling among conservatives who were in the crowd, but I didn‘t care. Dingell would always be the powerful chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, no matter what job he currently held.
When Democrats kept control of the House in 2008, there was talk that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would depose Chairman Dingell in favor of the more liberal Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). I announced my support for such a move because it would surely usher in a new Republican Majority in 2010. Pelosi ended up following my advice and Republicans seized control two years later, just as predicted.
Dingell’s transition to the great beyond gives us all a chance to reflect on his life, legacy and the lessons he taught about politics, about Congress and about the proper use of power. As Dingell noted himself, in his final note, about the nature of power, “In Democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power – in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker, the better).”
It is the exercise of that reflected power that most fascinated me about Dingell. He understood completely his role in the political process as a representative of his constituents.
He was a partisan: Dingell was a Democrat’s Democrat. He was all about his team. He wasn’t somebody who believed that we all needed to get along or be united or live in the middle of the road. He wanted the Democrats to win elections and rule the nation. He was a Democrat because he believed that the Democrats would be more likely to enact nationalized health care, which he believed would be good for his constituents.
He was a bipartisan: But Democrats did not always have the best interests of his constituents in mind, and when that happened, Dingell could be fiercely bipartisan. In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, my former boss, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), tried to get the House to pass common-sense gun control. Dingell, who was a board member of the National Rifle Association, teamed with Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to kill the legislation. His constituents didn’t want any gun control and neither did he. Similarly, when it came to the auto industry, Dingell cared first about jobs for his constituents and second for the environmental agenda of his party.
He was an institutionalist: Nothing brought more pleasure to Dingell than keeping the executive branch on its toes. His famous Dingell-grams, letters and other inquiries into the working of whatever administration he was overseeing, inspired Republicans to learn how to do actual oversight when they first took the majority in 1995. Dingell believed in the House and believed that it had a pre-eminent role in our Constitution as truly representative of the people.
He was a chairman’s chairman: To Dingell, the jurisdiction of the Energy and Commerce Committee was basically limitless. He reportedly said about his committee, “if it moves, it’s energy; if it doesn’t, it’s commerce.” As a chairman, he knew the importance of using the rules to his advantage. One of his most famous quotes summed this up well: “I’ll let you write the substance ... you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.”
For those in Congress today, Dingell teaches us several important things.
First, there is no substitute for experience. Dingell’s 60-year tenure was historic and not likely to be replicated, but his example serves as a forceful counterpoint to those who would advocate for term limits in general and term limits for committee chairmen in particular.
Second, partisanship plays a role in our democracy, but to be truly effective, a member must be able to cross party lines in service to their constituents.
Finally, while it is important to have some important foundational beliefs when serving in Congress, the most important belief is helping the people you represent live better lives. When members of Congress serve their ideological interests instead of their constituent interests, the system breaks down and the people suffer.