“You’re talking to a guy who is really sad but also who is really angry,” Rep. John Dingell told Roll Call in a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the 56th anniversary of his 1955 entry to Congress.
If a version of himself from 20 or 30 years ago were suddenly transported to the current day, the Michigan Democrat said, “I’d probably want to go and vomit.”
The Dean of the House spreads the blame, from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the tea-party-inspired candidates who wrested control of the chamber from the Democrats, to President Barack Obama, whom Dingell said needs to engage with the public or suffer the fate of one-termer Jimmy Carter. He even has a few harsh words for the press.
And his decades in Congress have given him the clout to speak candidly of other House figures from both parties.
Dingell reserves particular scorn for the approach that Republican leaders, in the wake of their 2010 takeover of the chamber, have taken toward directing their new rank and file.
“I happen to like Boehner; he’s a good guy,” Dingell said. “So Boehner goes out with his leadership team [and] he creates these tea baggers who come running in. These tea baggers come in and they decide they’re going to run the place. They don’t know the rules. They don’t know the traditions. They don’t know the customs. They don’t know the mores. They don’t know how to make this place work. They’re gonna run it!
“It’s just like taking a grade school class, bringing ’em down here and saying, ‘Here, run the country,’” said the man who attended the Capitol Page School.
“Boehner has created this crowd, and all of the sudden, they come in and they don’t follow him. So he’s created a monster. He’s created a monster that’s gonna eat him. Before they even know where the men’s or women’s restrooms is, they’re making speeches telling how important they are and how this has gotta be done.”
“There’s an old saying around this place, that everybody says you bring a big group in and it’s always a terrible group,” Dingell said. “They think, ‘I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m going to save this country.’ But they’re the only sons of bitches that think that. And then when it’s all over with and done with, everybody says, ‘Good God. Where did we get that crowd of crackpots?’”
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.’”
“I said, ‘Well, Tip, why don’t you take the matter to the Caucus, we’ll see what they say about that,’” Dingell recalled. Nowadays, that probably wouldn’t fly.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whom Dingell said he counts as a friend, introduced new ways of attacking the majority.
“You had Gingrich going out to get Wright, which he did. He succeeded. And that caused more ill will. And Gingrich came in and he just ran roughshod over the rights of the minority.
“The minority is important, I don’t care whether it’s Democrats or Republicans. In my view, every Member around here is supposed to be equal.”
What about the Republicans, who were in the House minority for 40 years before Gingrich? Some of them argue that the Democratic reign was no idyllic era.
“We treated them with every dignity. When I ran committees, I always sought Republicans. If I was running an investigation, I sought Republicans,” Dingell said. “I don’t want to hear any bullshit about how bad the minority was treated when I used to be chairman.”
How does Dingell know it’s really gotten worse, that he’s not romanticizing the past?
“No, that’s hooey,” he said. “If you talked to scholars … they’ll tell you we have the most extraordinary system of government in the world. The trouble is, we don’t seem to have people in it who want to make it work.”
After nearly an hour in the interview, Dingell leaves to vote.
In the Speaker’s Lobby, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is explaining to reporters how the nine-bill appropriations package has been held up because of disagreements on another mammoth, multiple-piece bill that extends the payroll tax cut.