Congress’s longest-serving member arrived at the House of Representatives when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, “The Honeymooners” was a top-rated television show, youngsters wore coonskin caps and their older siblings danced to “Rock Around the Clock.”
As of today, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, 86, has served in Congress for 57 years, five months and 26 days -- exceeding by one day the record set by the late West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat, who died in office in 2010.
It’s the 20,997th day as a member of the House for Dingell, once considered Congress’s most feared Democrat because of the investigations he conducted when he led the Energy and Commerce Committee.
In a June 5 interview, he called his vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act the proudest moment of his career.
The law “set a whole bunch of American citizens on the way to full citizenship, which had been denied to them for over 100 years,” Dingell said, stooping over the cane he now uses to get to the House floor. “It solved some hideous, hideous racial and domestic peace problems.”
Dingell, who also uses a scooter with a license plate that reads “The Dean,” has left his mark on pivotal legislation. He presided in the House as members voted to create the Medicare health-insurance program for older Americans in 1965. He loaned the same gavel to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2010 for the passage of President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
Obama gave the congressman a pen he used to sign the health-care bill into law. Dingell keeps it alongside another he received from President Lyndon Johnson after he signed the Medicare act.
In a statement issued today to mark the milestone, Obama said Dingell “continues to fight for workers’ rights, access to affordable health care and the preservation of our environment for future generations to enjoy.”
Dingell is the author of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, and the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act.
“You learn more talking to John Dingell in five minutes than you can learn from most members in five years,” Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an interview. “He’s so knowledgeable, such an institution.”
“He’s an honest broker, and a broker not just between parties but between generations,” Cole said.
Dingell earned a reputation as a domineering committee chairman by leading investigations during 16 years running the Energy and Commerce panel. He also spent 12 years as the committee’s top Democrat under Republican rule in the House.
During the mid-1980s, the committee discovered that the Defense Department paid $640 each for toilet-seat covers for military aircraft, and that General Dynamics Corp. (GD:US) overcharged the government by $244 million over a decade, including a fee for boarding an executive’s dog, named Fursten. The company repaid the money.
An investigation of the nation’s blood banks found improper testing and contaminated blood units as a result of donations by people with HIV or hepatitis. The Food and Drug Administration issued strict procedures for blood-collection centers.
“Always remember what you are fighting for and not who you are fighting against,” Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland recalled Dingell advising him when he became the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Dingell became a congressman at age 29 in December 1955 after winning a special election to replace his deceased father, John Dingell Sr. The younger Dingell was no stranger to the House: he made his first appearance in 1933 at age 6 after his father was elected. Later, he served as a congressional page.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who counts Dingell as a “good friend,” in a statement today called the Michigan Democrat “one of the greats and the very definition of a man of the House.”
As he reminisced about his career today, Dingell lamented politicians’ inability to find compromise. The refusal of elected officials “to insist that our government works” is hurting the country, Dingell said at an event in Washington sponsored by the Atlantic.
Eleven presidents have held office during his House tenure. At a 2005 event honoring Dingell’s 50th anniversary as a congressman, former President Bill Clinton said, “presidents come and presidents go, and John Dingell goes on forever.”
His southeastern Michigan district has been redrawn numerous times, though Dingell won his 30th term last year with 68 percent of the vote.
Dingell has dealt with adversity. After the 2008 election, he lost the chairman’s post on the Energy and Commerce Committee in part because he was close to Detroit’s automakers when Congress was weighing bailouts for the industry. His wife, Debbie, was a General Motors executive for more than 30 years before she retired in 2009.
Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who ran as a stronger advocate of environmental regulations, moved against Dingell and ultimately won the votes to take the gavel on the committee.
“He was always very respectful of me,” Waxman, who remains the committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview. “While many people would have expected him to carry a grudge, he never acted that way.”
Democratic Representative John Larson of Connecticut said Dingell’s 1981 marriage partially smoothed his “curmudgeon” tendencies, though he hasn’t lost his dry sense of humor.
Larson described the first discussion he had with Dingell about the history of the House. “He said to me, ‘young man, let me tell you this: they bury the bodies warm here.’”
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