June 6, 2013 at 3:26 pm

After 57 years in U.S. House, Dingell says there's still more to do

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Washington — U.S. Rep. John Dingell Jr. is poised to add another accomplishment in a career filled with legislative achievements — one that experts and colleagues say will cement his place in America's political history.

On Friday, the Dearborn Democrat becomes the longest-serving member of Congress with nearly 57 and a half years of service, surpassing the record set by West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, who served in the House and Senate. Unlike Byrd, Dingell never left the House and is dubbed the dean of the chamber.

"He's certainly a giant in the history of the institution," said Dave Dulio, chairman of the Oakland University Political Science Department.

Dingell, 86, has written parts of or helped approve landmark legislation — from creating the Medicare health care program for seniors to the Clean Air and Endangered Species acts to the Affordable Care Act. He also has defended the auto industry by defeating or tempering air pollution and safety rules that he said excessively raised costs.

As a teen, Dingellworked as a congressional page and witnessed President Franklin Roosevelt ask Congress to declare war against Japan in 1941. Dingell's longevity and influence can be rivaled only by a founding father's son — who was a diplomat, U.S. senator, U.S. representative and president.

"With the exception of John Quincy Adams," said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing-based Republican strategist and consultant, "there's no one with a longer participation in the affairs of the United States than John Dingell."

Dingell's influence is great because, as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he maximized the panel's reach.

"If you exclude agricultural policy and defense policy, there's not a major bill that's become law that he hadn't had some involvement in for over half a century," said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has worked with Dingell for 28 years. "I think that will be unsurpassed."

Dingell's support is considered crucial to passing legislation.

"If you needed a friend on an issue, there is no better friend in this place to have than John Dingell," said U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Howell. "And if he is opposed to you, my recommendation is just get the heck out of the way."

"If you exclude agricultural policy and defense policy, there's not a major bill that's become law that he hadn't had some involvement in for over half a century," said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has worked with Dingell for 28 years. "I think that will be unsurpassed."

After 20,997 days of service and hip and knee surgeries, Dingell shuns retirement: "I've always had things to do."

He wants to implement President Barack Obama's health care law, expand the wildlife refuge he sponsored along the Detroit River and create more food and drug safety protections, including preventing another meningitis outbreak from contaminated compounds.

"He's all about today and tomorrow," said Barton, who serves with Dingell on the Energy and Commerce Committee, "and that's probably the most impressive thing."

Dulio sees Dingell as an argument against term limits. "The institution benefits from some lawmakers who have been around for decades," he said.

Dingell's 2010 Republican opponent, Dr. Rob Steele, said while he respects the liberal congressman's dedication to the institution, there's an advantage to replacing incumbents.

"Sometimes you need someone from the outside who's not invested in what's been done now," said Steele, a cardiologist from Superior Township. "They're more invested in the results."

Congressional start

Dingell's legislative pursuits started when his father, a New Deal Democrat who pursued universal health care, died in office from a heart attack in 1955.

The junior Dingell, a 29-year-old Wayne County assistant prosecutor, entered a crowded contest, beat 23 candidates and returned to Washington to carry out the spirit of his father's work. He was sworn in by House Speaker Sam Rayburn the same day Congress eulogized his father.

Dingell wept at the tribute: "If I can be half the man my father was, I shall feel I am a great success."

Add John Dingell Sr.'s 22 years in the House, and the father-son duo have now consecutively served more than 80 years in the House — another record.

Dingell helped fulfill another family dream a decade later. In 1965, when the House passed Medicare, the young Dingell presided over the vote of the legislation his dad helped write. He keeps the gavel on display.

When he ascended to chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its oversight subcommittee, Dingell investigated tainted blood supplies, wasteful defense spending at General Dynamics and Stanford University's research billing for yacht maintenance and parties.

"Most people don't realize it, but oversight is one of the most important functions of the Congress," Dingell said. "… You just ask questions, and you insist that they answer."

When auto companies teetered on the brink of extinction in 2008, Dingell argued for government aid to keep alive the Detroit automakers. President George W. Bush approved initial loans for General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC before leaving office, and Obama put the two automakers through bankruptcy restructuring and provided aid. In total, Dingell helped win more than $85 billion in loans.

Dingell realized another family goal when Obama's health care law was approved in 2010. Dingell and his father had introduced a universal health care bill in every Congress for decades — a practice Dingell stopped after the passage of Obama's legislation.

Still, Dingell has had low points. In late 2008, as he recovered from knee replacement surgery, fellow Democrat Henry Waxman of California challenged him for chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Waxman hailed from the same state as the new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and wanted greater action on climate change than Dingell, the automaker stalwart.

Dingell couldn't launch a more vigorous defense and lost.

"I have never personally forgiven the way that was handled by Speaker Pelosi," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township. "On the other hand, the way John Dingell handled it was as gracious as you can imagine."

Model demeanor

This demeanor has been appreciated by members of Michigan's congressional delegation as they have headed up committees.

He's "really a model of how we should operate — working across the aisle, having strong beliefs, fighting for what you believe in, but also respecting other people," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee.

Dingell, one of only two remaining World War II veterans in the House, says he'll continue to run for office as long as there's work he can do honorably.

"I don't want people carrying me on the floor," says Dingell, who rides at times in a red scooter with a Michigan plate: "The Dean."

He has modest aspirations for his legacy.

"… I'd like to be remembered (as a) good, strong, tough, smart, hard-working, honest congressman," Dingell said, "and if they'll keep that in mind, that'll be fine."

mschultz@detroitnews.com

(202)662-8736

Since joining Congress in 1955, John Dingell Jr. has had a hand in landmark legislation from the Clean Air to the Affordable Care acts. On Friday, he’ll surpass Robert Byrd as the longest-serving congressman. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
Dingell’s congressional tenure covers nearly 21,000 days of service and 11 ... (John Dingell’s office)
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, left, talks with Sen. Theodore Green of Rhode ... (United Press International)
Dingell continued the legacy of his father, Rep. John Dingell Sr., after ... (John Dingell’s office)
Asked how he’d like to be remembered, Dingell — photographed in his office ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)