John Dingell Reflects On More Than 5 Decades in Congress
The Michigan Democrat is now the longest-serving member in history.
Congress is not a place we typically associate with high job satisfaction, at least not among the elected members. Given the complaints of dysfunction and contentious partisanship, it would be easy to understand why a day at work on the Hill could be a downer. But not for John Dingell, the 86-year-old Michigan congressman who is marking a milestone as the longest-serving member of Congress—58 years this December. He loves every single day on Capitol Hill and considers it a privilege to be there.
Dingell is a man of the House in so many ways. He grew up the son of a congressman, and worked as a page. When his father died in 1955, Dingell succeeded him in a special election. Thus began an enduring love affair with his job, and he is not shy about saying so, including some warm words for his colleagues. The other enduring love affair is with his second wife, Deborah, whom he married in the early 1980s. She is the head of D2 Strategies and a consultant to the American Automobile Policy Council. Debbie is a visible and well-liked presence in Washington, especially for the attentive manner in which she looks out for her husband, and her own political possibilities have been lighting up the rumor mills in DC and Michigan.
Dingell has distinguished himself in the fields of congressional service that are the measure of power: not being afraid to go after the biggest spenders—in particular the Pentagon—or the federal government in general. His approach to Democratic politics is deeply loyalist but with an effective bridge-building manner with Republicans. He’s an advocate for the auto industry, but it’s also the lifeblood of his district. Whatever else he does he’ll be remembered for his service on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he’s been chairman on and off and serves on all six subcommittees.
In the midst of doing business for his district and the nation, and various celebrations of his longevity, Dingell made time to talk with us about life in Congress throughout his career and what’s ahead.
What memory stands out about your first days in Congress?
The first day I was sworn in. It was also the day the House was paying tribute to my dad, during the recess. It was a particularly touching event. My mother and my family were in the gallery. I had [Dad’s] friends and colleagues paying tribute to him, and me being sworn in, and then the privilege of standing up to speak about my dad, who was very, very dear to me.
What stands out as your proudest day as a legislator?
Any man should be proud of just being here.
The most important vote I ever cast was the vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which gave our African-American and minority folks the right to vote. I very nearly lost an election over it. But it was the right thing to do. It was the single vote that did the most to see to it that our country remained one and to finally begin the solution of the problems that triggered the Civil War.
I was challenged in an election in which the Wall Street Journal gave me a 1 in 15 chance of winning. It was a hard-fought campaign in which I asked people: Why is it that a white man or woman should be able to vote and an African-American should not?
What was your saddest day in Congress?
I’ve had a lot of sad days where I thought the Congress did bad things. But I would have to think about that more.
What’s the closest you ever came to leaving Congress?
I had a very difficult district the first ten years. It was all inside the city of Detroit; I continually had primary challenges, and they were serious. I thought, “I couldn’t put my wife and family through this every two years.” I’d always win, and I’d win big, but it was wearing on the family.
When the civil rights vote came up in ’64 I was one of the leaders in getting it enacted, but I was seriously considering going home and running for another office, because it had become searing and stressful for me. I had a discussion with another member, who said it was too bad I was going to leave the Congress because I could win in the new district the legislature had carved out, the only one in which I could. I went ahead and ran. It’s been a wonderful experience ever since. In my district I’ve never known a more loyal bunch of friends.
Who were your mentors?
Dad, clearly. [Speaker of the House] Sam Rayburn; that wonderful Irishman [congressman] John W. McCormack, who was my dear, dear friend; [congressman] John Emerson Moss, who came from Sacramento—he and I were closer than any two men who ever served here, and we sat next to each other on the Commerce Committee for more than 20 years.
You grew up in Washington part of the time, went to school at Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University, and have worked here for so long. What does Washington mean to you as a city?
I make no bones of it: I am a citizen of Michigan, and I love the people I represent and serve. Washington is a wonderful town. It really is. But Washington is not home. Michigan is home for Deborah and me. We spend half our working life in Michigan.
As soon as I got out of school I went home, practiced law, worked for the prosecutor’s office, and became Dad’s eyes and ears in the district, because at that time he had no staff in the district and no money for the travel home. He had to move here for half the year because he got only one round-trip fare a year between Washington and Michigan. He’d drive the whole family to Washington and then back at the end of the session. My brother and sister and I went to school here half the year and a half year back home.
It wouldn’t be that way today, would it?
It goes beyond that. Frankly, the life of a member of Congress who has a family, who doesn’t have great independent means, is very difficult. Difficult for him. Difficult for the kids.
How has it changed?
We now have any number of trips home, and a staff at home. When Dad came he had one office on the fifth floor of the old Cannon building, one secretary, two desks, no air conditioning, one typewriter, and one electric fan. When I came I had a staff of four and four manual typewriters, and if I got another one I had to pay for it out of my own pocket.
It is now for a member to choose whether to relocate here or to stay home with his family and commute. And if you look, most of the members commute. From the standpoint of the people we serve, it leaves a lot to be desired. We don’t devote the time here we should to get to know each other.
You have served with 11 presidents. With which President did you have the best relationship?
I had good relationships with surprisingly every President, but I think the best I had with any was with President Clinton. I had a good relationship with Carter. I was a very new and young member when Eisenhower and Kennedy were here, so I had a rather good but distant relationship because I was an unimportant member.
Surprisingly, because I detested him, I had a good relationship with Nixon. I can think of no President with whom I had a bad relationship, and that includes the two Bushes and even Reagan.
Which is the better job, Speaker of the House or a committee chair?
I made that choice a long time ago. Everybody has a different outlook. Some think you have to continue rising. I happen to think differently. I think you have to do things for the people who sent you here, and the country. I always found I could do more as chairman of the Commerce Committee than as Speaker, and at much lower cost to the family. I had to raise four kids alone after I got divorced.
Would you say you have an eye for political talent? Do you have a sense among your colleagues, especially the younger members, of who has a chance at a bigger career beyond the Capitol?
I don’t think there’s a bigger career than serving in the House. They used to say to John Quincy Adams, who came back to the House after the White House, “Don’t you feel demeaned by coming back to the House after serving as President?” He said, “No man is ever demeaned by serving in the House of Representatives.” To serve here is an enormous privilege, one of the greatest gifts within the power of the people to give.
It distresses me [that] a lot of members come here and start looking for their next job. Term limits—that’s one of the things that’s hurting us. When you lose the skill and experience of members who have served a long time, it’s a loss to the institution and the people. The goal of a member coming here shouldn’t be some higher office.
When you need to remove yourself from the sometimes-confining environment of the Hill and clear your head, what do you do?
Until my back went bad I’d head for the mountains and streams and hunt. I had a log cabin in Shenandoah County, Virginia. I had 100 acres; my nearest neighbor was three-quarters of a mile away. There were deer running around, bears running up and down the driveway, turkeys gobbling on the hill.
Because you succeeded your father, who would you like to succeed you? Possibly your wife, Debbie, whom you call your secret weapon?
First of all, I’m not going to resign. When the time comes, I will not run. They tried to run Debbie for the Senate in Michigan, when Carl Levin left. We talked about it as we do almost everything. I told her the choice was entirely hers. “Whatever you decide to do, I will support you.” That’s my attitude with everything she wants to do. She’s a tremendously talented woman—wonderfully good and decent, but also the most loyal and best friend I’ve got. She has her own ambitions and interests. I will do whatever I can to help her. I want a Democrat to succeed me. There are a lot of good candidates up in the district, but there aren’t any who are better than Deborah, or better-qualified.
Do you have an unofficial club of members who have served for decades?
No. I’ve just got a lot of friends whom I admire and trust and go to for advice on occasion, men and women on both sides of the aisle.
Do you think we’re coming out of the Great Recession?
How has the auto industry fared?
You’ll remember they were within about four hours of dying. And the banks were within two hours of dying. And we had to go in and make huge amounts of money available to all of the industry, including the three major auto companies, and the banks, including those miserable big New York banks.
Today? The [auto companies] are going gangbusters. They have come back strong. That was not a bounce. That was hard, hard work, pushing the wheelbarrow up the hill.
What kind of car do you drive?
American. Back home I’ve got a Ford SUV, and here Deborah has a Cadillac.
What’s on your legislative must-do list for the years ahead?
Get the economy going; deal with the problems my people have with employment; protect Social Security and Medicare; see to it that the new Affordable Care Act gets off to a proper start; protect the natural resources of the country, particularly the Great Lakes because they are starting to get dirty again; clean up the rivers. Also build a unit of the National Wildlife system in my district, which we’ve taken in ten years from zero to better than 6,000 acres; it is an international refuge that has cooperation from my Canadian friends on the other side of the river. And complete a national park where there was the battle of the River Raisin, which was one the biggest battles in the War of 1812.