February 24, 2014 at 9:00 am

Dingell says disillusionment with the institution drove decision to retire

Rep. John Dingell is leaving the Congress hes 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 wont seek re-election this fall to the seat hes held since 1955.

Im not going to be carried out feet first, says Dingell, who will be 88 in July. I dont 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 Im OK. And Im still as smart and capable as anyone on the Hill.

But Im 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. Its become very hard because of the acrimony and bitterness, both in Congress and in the streets.

Thats 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. Its hard for me to accept, but its 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. Its no secret the congressman would like to see the Dingell tenure continue. While she wont announce her candidacy Monday, his wife of 38 years, Debbie, a Democratic National Committee member and former General Motors executive, will almost certainly run.

Weve accomplished a lot together, Dingell says. I couldnt have done it without her. Shes 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.

Ive done most of what I came to do, he says. Youre never satisfied. But I know Ive 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 Dingells career.

But in the end, the realities of age and the desire to decide his own exit won out.

Im not the man I was, he says. Im not sure how long the good Lord is going to give me.

John Dingell has done an extraordinary lot with the time hes been given so far, and says he wont fade away.

Ill be around, he says. There are still some things Id like to take on.

Congressman John Dingle gives a thumbs up as he arrives at the SWCRC Legislative forum held at the Crystal Gardens in Southgate. Fred Eaton (left), SWCRC Director, Comcast Cablevision, and Mary Jarosz, SWCRC Legislative Forum Coordinator, were on hand for the forum. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the 87-year-old Dearborn Democrat known as 'the ... (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)