Dingell, dubbed by a fellow House member 'Tailpipe Johnny' over his industry advocacy, greets then-UAW President Douglas Fraser before a hearing in 1983. (The Detroit News)
Rep. John Dingell's spirited defense of the auto industry, stretching over a half-century, has seen many rough patches -- but none more difficult than the past two years.
"I've got 800,000 people who live or die depending on how the auto industry is doing," Dingell said in a recent interview.
"I'm always accused of loving the industry. I can sure tell you I love those people and I'm literally all they've got. So I've done everything I could during the time I've been here to protect those people."
Dingell's southeastern Michigan congressional district is home to dozens of auto and auto supplier plants, as well as Ford Motor Co.'s headquarters in Dearborn. He has many admirers in the industry.
"John Dingell's amazing tenure in the Congress is exceeded only by his work ethic, sense of fairness, and commitment to public service," said GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner.
"His legislative record has strengthened America's families and our country's competitiveness, and benefited the environment. His service to his constituents and his support for a strong, progressive domestic auto industry has been, and continues to be, truly exemplary."
Dingell has gone to bat dozens of times for the industry and its workers. He has clashed repeatedly with environmentalists and Democratic colleagues over emissions standards, safety requirements and other auto legislation.
U.S. Rep. Ed Madigan, R-Ill., called Dingell "Tailpipe Johnny" over his ardent defense of the industry.
"(Dingell) has for nearly half a century been the auto industry's stoutest defender in Congress and has had more impact in shaping auto industry practices than anyone else in government history," Frank O'Donnell, who is now president of Clean Air Watch, said in a 1982 article.
"He's resisted any kind of government action to make them change their practices and run interference for the industry."
Dingell fought mandatory air bags in late 1970s, as well as higher fuel efficiency standards and new emissions requirements. He supported bills to require more American content in vehicles.
And he helped write a compromise bill on the auto recall policy in 2000, after the deaths of more 270 people linked to Firestone tires primarily on Ford Explorers.
But he hasn't done it alone. Backed by the United Auto Workers union and Midwestern congressmen, Dingell crafted coalitions -- "union, dealers, suppliers and companies," he says -- to beat back attempts at "needless overregulation" of the auto industry.
And while he zealously represents the industry and its workers, Dingell has prodded automakers to wake up to their declining political clout, and to think further ahead.
For example, in early 2007 -- with the clout of environmentalists on the rise -- the pragmatic Dingell visited all of the Big Three CEOs in their Michigan offices to deliver a message: It was time to make a deal to hike fuel efficiency standards, whether they liked it or not.
That December, Dingell reached agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over a bill raising fuel efficiency standards at least 40 percent, to a fleetwide 35 mpg, by 2020.
He won a couple of key concessions, including mileage credits for alternative fuel vehicles that softened the impact.
But the standards are still expected to cost automakers more than $100 billion through 2020.
California and its leaders have given Dingell some of his roughest days.
The Michigan congressman has battled California for more than 40 years over its efforts to set its own, stricter emissions and pollution limits.
In 1990, at Dingell's urging, states were ordered to choose between California's requirements and the federal requirements -- but not impose their own.
Last month, however, President Barack Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to have another look at whether California and 13 other states should be allowed to set their own -- a move the automakers say could force them to meet multiple standards.
Dingell and his successor as Energy and Commerce Committee chaiman, Rep. Henry Waxman, have wrestled over emissions since 1976.
Since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Dingell has been the largest House recipient of campaign donations from the industry: more than $625,000.
By contrast, they haven't given Waxman a dime.
Dingell wants Americans to have the freedom to buy the vehicles they want, and not be forced into smaller vehicles.
"This is still a free nation where people buy what they want and where the government doesn't tell them what they can buy," he said.
In the end, the compromises have made progress.
"Do they look to see after these fights were over -- despite all the demagoguery on the other side -- I have written good legislation with regard to fuel efficiency, auto safety, air bags?" Dingell said. "That has hurt my feelings."