OPINION — The passing of John Dingell this month justifies more than a few words in honor of one of the great public servants — and fiercest investigators — of our time.
John was a dedicated and hard worker in the daily tasks of the House of Representatives for nearly 60 years, and particularly in its committees. He may have been of as much value to the nation as any of the presidents under whom he served, and certainly equal to the value of some of the great senators of his time, modest men like Democrats Mike Mansfield, Gaylord Nelson and Claiborne Pell; Republicans like John Chafee, Bill Cohen and Bob Dole.
It is regrettable that the public sometimes forgets the incredible value of the few great legislators who actually turn out the work product which is the primary responsibility of Congress. John was one of the Congress’ great legislative craftsmen.
For my 15 years in the House from 1967 to 1983, John was in his prime. He was at the very heart of the environmental bipartisanship in the Congress, which lasted from 1967 until the accession of Newt Gingrich to power in 1994. Along with Mo Udall of Arizona, John Dingell was one of the most respected environmentalists in the House, as well as an accomplished draftsman of legislative language.
I write these words in the hope that they may inspire some of the hard-charging young idealists just elected as freshmen members of the House to try to match his accomplishments as a legislator. This is particularly true in 2019 when public attention and the media will be overwhelmed with the oratory of the several qualified candidates for president. Meanwhile, it is in the House that the careful framing of the budget, tax law changes and crucial legislation in the fields of immigration reform, campaign contributions and corrupt corporations will form the true basis for the elections of 2020.
It will be frustrating work, because most of what the House passes will not get by the Senate or a presidential veto, but nevertheless, what the House does in the next 18 months will be the foundation for the direction the nation takes in January 2021.
Watch John Lewis’ full eulogy to John Dingell in 8 minutes
The new members will shortly begin to perceive that there may be less than a third of their colleagues who actually participate in the day-to-day craftsmanship of new laws in the subcommittees where the most constructive work of the House is done, and in the tuning up of the final language in full committees.
They will find, as has historically been the case, that the majority of their colleagues are more interested in the utterance of high-minded principles and providing dedicated service to the problems of their constituents back home than the grueling work of fashioning the careful language of laws to govern the country.
This was my experience when I arrived in Washington as a freshman in late 1967, full of great ideas but with absolutely no concept of how laws were actually made.
But I had one great and unusual privilege. I was assigned to a minor subcommittee on which no no one else wanted to serve. It was the seven-member Subcommittee on Fish and Wildlife, chaired by John Dingell. The first Republican elected opposing the Vietnam War at a time when that war was supported by two-thirds of the country, I had few friends on the Republican side in 1968, my first full year in the House, but was immediately taken under the wing of John Dingell, to serve under his leadership in a whole host of his legislative priorities. This was an enormous privilege.
Almost immediately, John talked me into being one of the few Republican sponsors to quadruple the funds for water pollution treatment plants in 1968, really the only increase over the budget in a year where the Vietnam War was draining huge amounts from the Treasury.
Then, in 1969, John engineered the subcommittee, full committee and House passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, which, with the leadership of the powerful Scoop Jackson of Washington in the Senate, was enacted into law. In retrospect, it is doubtful that many members of Congress, let alone the public, knew of the incredible positive impact that law would have on the nation over the next 60 years.
In the early 1970s, John was the leader in crafting the Endangered Species Act, perhaps the most notable of the subcommittee’s achievements in 1973.
John once told me I was the only Republican he could trust, and insisted that I accompany him on an eight-day trip to northern Alaska to observe the operations of the oil company drilling and pipeline across the arctic tundra. As a result, we were able to furnish the crucial votes for one of Mo Udall’s greatest accomplishments, the Alaska Lands Act, which set aside vast areas of the state for permanent protection.
From the archives: Debbie Dingell’s office homage to the longest serving House member — her husband and predecessor, John
John was immensely proud of his pioneer work in the great Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Medicare Acts, but I believe he may have died believing that the Endangered Species Act was his greatest contribution to the nation. He once confided to me that he was equally proud of a bill his father had gotten passed — putting a tax on the sales of outboard motor boats, with the receipts to go toward cleaning up the pollution of his beloved Great Lakes.
It would have been too much to expect that Dingell, representing the heart of the auto industry in the Detroit area, could be expected to lead in new efforts for controlling auto emissions, but he was no captive of either the industry or its labor force. On occasion he could work compromises that both opposed, persuading his constituents in their corporate headquarters and labor halls of their necessity.
During my 15 years under John’s directions, four of the five chairs of the Merchant and Fisheries Committee were indicted and jailed — one, “Steady Eddie” Garmatz, in the Baltimore federal courthouse named after him. But no hint of impropriety ever attached to John Dingell, nor scandal of any sort.
John was no fan of the Senate. Like most House old-timers, to John the Senate was not “the Upper Chamber,” but simply “the other body.” He had seen two many pieces of carefully-crafted pieces of House legislation die in the byzantine procedures of the Senate or by the implacable opposition of a single senator.
After I left the House to return to the private practice of law in 1983, another great talent of John Dingell came to the fore. He was a ferocious attacker of any and all waste that he would occasionally come across in the use of federal funds. Like Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire’s monthly “Golden Fleece Award” for notable federal boondoggles such as the Pentagon’s $800 toilets, Dingell could be brutal in his questioning of bureaucrats found to be misusing taxpayer dollars. It didn’t matter whether the miscreant was a Republican or a Democrat.
I turned on my television set one day to see him swear in a witness before his oversight committee. It was the hitherto highly-esteemed president of my own alma mater and constituent, Stanford University. John had discovered that while Stanford received high percentages of federal subsidies for basic engineering and other research, Stanford’s president, formerly a fine administrator of the FDA in the Carter administration, had been using some of those funds for silk sheets at his presidential mansion, and making use of a private yacht. Power can corrupt, in great universities as well as amongst politicians.
The result on TV was almost frightening. John brusquely directed a few pointed questions to obtain the timid admission of the university president to these awful misuses of public funds, then neatly dropped that great man’s trousers around his ankles in front of viewers across the nation, and pronounced that he, Dingell, intended to substantially reduce Stanford’s percentage of federal grants in the future, by something like 20 percent, in my fading memory.
Stanford’s president shortly thereafter left office, but John Dingell continued to do similar jobs on other hapless wrongdoers. One can’t escape a quiet chuckle at thinking how John would have treated the recently-departed secretary of Interior and head of the EPA.
While the small House Subcommittee on Fish and Wildlife has long since vanished, it has been succeeded by the full House Committee on Natural Resources, chaired by a worthy successor to Dingell and Udall, the Honorable Raúl Grijalva of Arizona. That committee has much to do in the next two years to undo some of the environmental atrocities committed by the Trump administration. It might do well to enlist John’s wife and successor, Debbie Dingell, in this effort to reinstate and improve upon much of what her husband accomplished in his 59 years of public service.
What an example for today’s House investigators! Put the witness under oath, forego speeches, and ask the pointed questions that witnesses such as Roger Stone, Michael Cohen and Donald Trump Jr. may find uncomfortable, in the process educating the public to the full-on doings in the Great Swamp.
So, John, wherever you are, thank you for the friendship and inspiration, and trying to teach a naive and ignorant newcomer how to be an effective member of the House. But, most of all, for that 59 years of service to the nation.
Pete McCloskey represented California in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1983.