Rep. John Dingell is leaving the Congress he’s served for longer than anyone else in United States history.
At a luncheon Monday in his beloved Downriver, the Dearborn representative says he will announce he won’t seek re-election this fall to the seat he’s held since 1955.
“I’m not going to be carried out feet first,” says Dingell, who will be 88 in July. “I don’t want people to say I stayed too long.”
Dingell says his health “is good enough that I could have done it again. My doctor says I’m OK. And I’m still as smart and capable as anyone on the Hill.
“But I’m not certain I would have been able to serve out the two-year term.”
More than health concerns, Dingell says a disillusionment with the institution drove his decision to retire.
“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” he says. “It’s become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.”
That’s a jarring assessment from a man who last summer surpassed the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd as the longest-serving member of Congress.
But he says poisonous partisanship and a growing disregard for serving the interests of the people have taken the joy out of the job.
“This is not the Congress I know and love,” he says. “It’s hard for me to accept, but it’s time to cash it in.”
The question now becomes who will succeed Dingell. He won the seat at age 29 after the death of his father, a Depression-era New Dealer who served the district for 20 years.
An open congressional seat draws lots of interest. It’s no secret the congressman would like to see the Dingell tenure continue. While she won’t announce her candidacy Monday, his wife of 38 years, Debbie, a Democratic National Committee member and former General Motors executive, will almost certainly run.
“We’ve accomplished a lot together,” Dingell says. “I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s been my guide, my counsel, my friend and my closest adviser.”
Dingell is not only the longest-serving congressman, but also one of its most influential — and at one time its most feared. As chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, he expanded its investigative reach and was noted for grueling interrogations of government contractors.
“We investigated millions of dollars of thievery from the federal government,” he says.
Dingell was a champion of the auto industry, but also an advocate for the environment, writing the clean air and water bills and helping obtain thousands of acres for parks and preserves. He cites those as his greatest accomplishments, along with civil rights, food and drug safety, immigration reform and finally, the Affordable Care Act. He views the health care reform law as a tribute to his father, whose primary cause was universal health care.
“I’ve done most of what I came to do,” he says. “You’re never satisfied. But I know I’ve done the best I could.”
Dingell had wrestled with his decision for most of the winter. I talked to him extensively about his plans in January, and I felt then he was leaning toward leaving.
But earlier this month Henry Waxman, the ranking minority member on Energy and Commerce, announced his retirement, putting Dingell in line to reclaim that position in the next Congress, or perhaps the chairmanship should Democrats take the House.
Several of his colleagues pledged their support, and Dingell was tempted to go for it to assuage a deep wound Waxman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi inflicted in 2008, when they orchestrated his defeat as chairman. That was the low point of Dingell’s career.
But in the end, the realities of age and the desire to decide his own exit won out.
“I’m not the man I was,” he says. “I’m not sure how long the good Lord is going to give me.”
John Dingell has done an extraordinary lot with the time he’s been given so far, and says he won’t fade away.
“I’ll be around,” he says. “There are still some things I’d like to take on.”