But don’t get Dingell wrong. He isn’t citing the tea party as the cause of all that ails Congress, and his criticism hits both parties.
Obama, he said, “needs to get out of the White House and start talking to folks like Truman did,” referring to President Harry Truman’s uphill but ultimately successful re-election bid in 1948.
“You lock yourself in the White House, all of the sudden you’ve got trouble. That was what Jimmy Carter did, and he was a one-termer.”
He’s seen 10 different Speakers and 11 presidents as a Member. As a page, he watched from the gallery as Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) cast the only vote against declaring war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941.
Dingell counts Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), John McCormack (D-Mass.), Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and Jim Wright (D-Texas) as the most effective Speakers he’s seen. Two Democrats, Tom Foley (Wash.) and Carl Albert (Okla.), were the least effective, he said.
“Foley ran the place so well ... he lost the Congress to the Republicans and he lost his own seat in the process,” he said.
Dingell reveres the rules of the House and remains amazed at how the Founding Fathers structured American government.
“That Constitution is a magnificent document,” he said. “This place was created by people a lot smarter than you or I. And they did it over a long period of time.”
The former chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee said: “The committee system was set up over hundreds of years. And the regular order on the floor was set up over literally thousands of years. ... So everybody had a right to be heard. And believe it or not, this makes for better legislation. If every Member can be heard, then every constituency is having its input.”
He traces some of the current bad blood to Democrats’ longtime nemesis Richard Nixon. “It started getting bad about the time Nixon was here as president,” Dingell said.
And in the wake of Watergate and the explosion of popularity of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “every kid reporter that was interviewing me after Watergate was out to do what the guys who did the investigative work for the Washington Post did, and put me in jail. I could hear it in the questions they asked. … ‘Gotcha’ journalism became the thing of the day,” Dingell said.
Over the course of the past few decades, “money got to be hugely important. So the committees got very large. And not infrequently, the committees were viewed as sources of raising funds. And they got so big that they didn’t work.”
Speakers began to take control from committee chairmen. Dingell recalls then-Speaker O’Neill wanting to bring a bill to the floor by a certain date.
“I’ll get it done as fast as I can,” Dingell told O’Neill, who replied that “‘when the Speaker of the Massachusetts Legislature goes to a committee chairman and tells him to do something, if he doesn’t, you have a new committee chairman.’”