On June 7, Rep. John D. Dingell became the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. The Michigan Democrat evolved into a master of congressional procedures and traditions over his nearly six decades of service. As a devout institutionalist, Dingell ranks alongside the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, whose longevity in office he just surpassed.
Dingell is widely recognized inside and outside Congress for wielding a deft gavel as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee for 14 years and, simultaneously, of its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. His current status as chairman emeritus and second-ranking minority member has not diminished his dedication to the work of the committee and the House.
Dingell has earned the respect of his colleagues in both parties for his parliamentary skills and policy knowledge. He is often quoted to the effect: “If you let me write the procedure and I let you write the substance, I’ll beat you every time.” (Only he used a more colorful verb than “beat.”)
When a committee colleague once taunted him that he didn’t have the votes to stop from being reported a bill Dingell opposed, he responded, “Yeah, but I’ve got the gavel,” with which he banged the meeting to adjournment, sending the bill to legislative oblivion for the remainder of that Congress.
That is not to suggest he was a heavy-handed chairman (though he did earn the nickname, “the truck”). But he knew how to use his procedural knowledge to get what he wanted while still allowing his colleagues to fully participate in the process.
Not only has Dingell been a skilled legislative tactician in shepherding major legislation through his committee and the House over the years, but he has also been a dogged executioner of congressional oversight.
One of his early role models was Rep. John E. Moss, D-Calif., the previous chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of what was at the time the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Dingell learned from Moss the value and means of conducting effective, in-depth inquiries into the operations of federal agencies and programs, regardless of which party controlled the White House.
While many members today think narrowly of oversight as holding a hearing after reading a headline in the morning paper, the best practitioners of oversight recognize the importance of carefully laying the groundwork through thorough and persistent information gathering before going public.
As Dingell once put it, “Oversight isn’t necessarily a hearing. Sometimes it’s a letter. We find our letters have a special effect on a lot of people.”
Anyone familiar with Dingell’s modus operandi recognizes that as understatement. Dingell’s letters to Cabinet and agency heads, famously known as Dingell-grams, were notorious for their length and detailed questions. Fortunately the House did not have to pay for them by the word, as you would a telegram, though many a bureaucrat paid for them by the hour to craft a satisfactory response to the chairman’s queries.
When Dingell was recently asked in an ABC News interview about the biggest changes in Congress since he was first elected in 1955 to succeed his father, he did not hesitate to respond: “Lack of collegiality, refusal to compromise, an absolute reluctance to work together, and I think, a total loss of understanding of the traditions.”
He went on to lament that “compromise has become a dirty word, and this is a great shame. The founding fathers intended something quite different.”
How then, he was asked, do you keep your sense of mission today?
“You’ve got to love the job, love the country, and have goals and purposes and hopes,” he replied, “and you’ve got to have a closeness with the people and understand what their hopes and dreams and desires are.”
His constituents, the Congress and the country are the better for his service in the House these past 57-plus years. We could use a few dozen more like him in both parties who understand the meaning of governance and how it is done.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules.