Dingell’s Own Half Century

Posted June 15, 2005 at 6:53pm

Roll Call and I have changed a lot since 1955, the year we both began on Capitol Hill. And yet it’s that very change that has kept us both going and positioned us to continue our work into the future.

I do wonder what the Speaker who first swore me into office — the great Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) — would say about this milestone year for both Roll Call and me if he were still around. It might be, let us say, colorful — but I guarantee you one thing, it would be brilliant. Sam knew how to craft a sound bite before CNN was a glimmer in Ted Turner’s eye.

Of course, the Members who served with Speaker Rayburn in the 84th Congress would barely recognize the job — or Congress itself — as it is today.

Back then, Congress was in session for about seven months a year. Committee markups were held in executive session behind closed doors, and were full of real, vigorous debate and discussion. Ultimately, real bipartisan agreement was hammered out.

The number of staff around to help us was small; I had four people in my first office and did my own scheduling. Members did not go home to their districts every week, as the highway system was still in its infancy and air transportation was both expensive and not widely available.

Campaigning was different back then too, with retail politics the name of the game and with fundraising a relatively minor aspect of winning re-election. It was unusual to spend $100,000 on a campaign. When we were in session back then, we were able to concentrate a lot more on policy. Campaigning was something we did back home with our trusted advisers, our neighbors and the party faithful.

Congress has always been a partisan place, but never has the atmosphere been as negative and divisive as it is today. We accomplished a lot more when Democrats and Republicans not only worked on legislation together, but also talked, dined and got together socially with one another. The children of Democratic and Republican Members played together in the neighborhoods where we lived, and our teenage children went out on dates. We played cards together in between votes, went hunting together and played paddleball in the gym (I frequently played an Illinois lawmaker named Donald Rumsfeld).

In other words, we were friends beyond the floor of the House, and the trust and respect that came with those friendships helped us understand not only each other better, no matter our party or region, but also when and how the Congress needed to come together for the good of the nation.

Clearly, times have changed, and so too have the processes of Congress. We have all witnessed and participated in many of the significant changes that have taken place in the way the House of Representatives does its work. Spotting the changes is the easy part. Assessing and navigating the changes as they happen, in order to chart the best course forward toward a better life for our constituents and our nation, is another matter entirely.

My education began soon after I arrived at the Capitol in December 1955. As a young Member of Congress in the ’50s and ’60s, I wanted to make a difference in achieving progress on the environment and consumer protection and health care. This may come as a surprise, but when I first got here, Speaker Rayburn thought I was something of a “bomb-thrower” and that I might be a bit too radical for the Ways and Means Committee — the assignment I wanted and the committee my Dad had served on for nearly 22 years.

Instead, Speaker Rayburn decided to assign me to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and Public Works Committee. You could say that I found myself swimming in a smaller pond than what I’d hoped for, but over the decades that followed, that small committee provided me with the opportunity to work on issues of importance to the people of Southeastern Michigan, in particular the protection of fish and wildlife. I am quite proud of the bipartisan work the committee did to help enact crucial environmental legislation, including both the National Environmental Policy Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That assignment also taught me the value of gathering facts, developing patience, sharing credit and, most importantly, learning the rules and procedures of the House and its committee system.

As I began my second term in Congress in 1957, I got another committee assignment: I was assigned to the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Rayburn had chaired this committee from 1931 to 1936, a time of tremendous change under the New Deal in which the committee helped enact many of the first regulatory laws of the modern era in an effort to protect our nation from ever experiencing again another Great Depression. And so, as a committee member in the ’50s and ’60s, I had the opportunity to learn about a broad range of issues.

Yet at the same time, change once again reared its head. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, pressure was building for Congress to reform the committee system. The early ’70s bought the realization that the legislative branch needed greater resources to be an equal partner in government. Many of the mid-career Members of Congress were able to move the House from the 19th to the 20th century.

As it happened, the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee was a ground zero of sorts for changes made to the House committee system. The committee created more robust subcommittees with enough staff to tackle some of the most challenging policy matters of that period, including oil embargoes, consumer protection, food and drug safety and environmental pollution. The ’70s was a decade not only of institutional changes in the House but also of changes in how Congress addressed certain areas of policy. Energy was a major one, as it is today.

In 1981, during the 97th Congress, the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee was renamed the Committee on Energy and Commerce. I found myself chairing a committee that continued to have activist subcommittee chairmen, with the full committee engaged in processing the work of the subcommittees and building consensus not just within the committee but in the House and Senate as well, across our many areas of jurisdiction. And even when I or other chairmen disagreed with a subcommittee chairman on a bill, the committee process provided us time to work toward compromise.

Vigorous chairmen are often portrayed as hard-charging, occasionally cantankerous investigators and legislators. But wise Members also taught me a wonderful lesson: The hardest hammer can only strike the nail squarely when guided by the softer hand. In other words, the pursuit of truth was most effective when tempered with fairness, the regular order used to guide our proceedings. The trust of my colleagues paid off many times, such as in the successful passages of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986, the Clean Air Act of 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Time forces change, even as our convictions become more entrenched. Fewer and grayer hairs and a slower step are more obvious to the eye than the abiding quick wit and undying passion for the job. Pragmatism helps chairmen, and as I have now seen, ranking members as well. I do my utmost to cooperate with my Republican colleagues whenever possible because, ultimately, our duty to our constituents and the nation includes finding a way to write good legislation. However, the other side of that coin is that it is also our obligation to oppose vigorously legislation that we judge to be harmful, regardless of where it originates.

So how will the next generation of Members be able to distinguish themselves and survive for their next 50 years in the House? I don’t know the answer, but for me I think it has required developing a certain level of flexibility in how I do my work and serve my constituents.

For instance, it used to be that when I said I was “all thumbs,” it meant I could not type very well on one of the four manual typewriters we had in my first office. Today, I have to be quick with my thumbs as I key up messages on my BlackBerry. But in order to learn those necessary modern skills, I needed to have the flexibility — and quite frankly, the humility — to learn something new and to admit to myself that, while I would never change who I am at my core, some of my ways of obtaining my constituents’ goals require changing methods to suit the times.

Perhaps that is true of the bigger picture, too. All sides must believe the rules are fair and that their voices, while not necessarily heeded, are at least heard. I think for that to happen, it probably entails all of us maintaining our core values, yet, at the same time, having the willingness and flexibility to give serious consideration to the other side of both the discussion and the aisle. Then, perhaps, armed with that level of flexibility on all sides, Members could begin taking steps toward the other side and, ultimately, sit down at the table and work out the issues.

What guides me in my most combative moments to put down my arms and reach out across the aisle? I always try to remember that no cause is greater than this institution and the ideals it was founded on. No one man or woman is greater than this body and the collective wisdom we are capable of exhibiting. If we all hold onto that core principle, we can make changes that will not only be better for us, but better for our employers — the American people — as well.

Again, I’ve been here long enough to know that I do not have all of the answers, but I’m pretty sure that leaders who embrace those qualities would make Sam Rayburn, the finest public servant to ever come out of the state of Texas, real proud.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) marks his 50th anniversary in the House of Representatives on Dec. 13, 2005.